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Cuomo's opponents up the ante in Moreland Commission criticisms

Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
In this undated photo, Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses the Moreland Act Commission.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s opponents in the November election race are stepping up accusations over the ethics commission scandal and citing sections of state law that they say might have been broken by the governor’s aides.

Lt. Gov. candidate Tim Wu, who along with Zephyr Teachout, is challenging Cuomo and Kathy Hochul in the state Democratic primary, teaches New York state criminal law at Columbia University.

Wu says while a grand jury will have to determine whether any actual crimes were committed, he says alleged interference by Cuomo's staff in an ethics commission sending out subpoenas is potentially in violation of several state statutes, including conspiracy to perform official misconduct and the hindering of prosecution.

Cuomo now says his staff merely offered advice, and the subpoenas were eventually sent.

Wu says that doesn’t matter. He likens it to a classic ticket fixing scheme.

“Let’s say you reach out to a police officer and you say, I’d like you to fix this ticket of my cousins. And he says, I don’t really think I should do that,” Wu said. “That’s still a crime.”

Wu says under existing law, several state officials are empowered to take some kind of action. He says the local district attorneys have full jurisdiction, and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli could make what’s known as a referral to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and the state legislature could be holding hearings.

He says the Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie’s staff was accused of closing traffic lanes to retaliate against a local mayor, spawned several state-based investigations there.

Cuomo’s GOP opponent, Rob Astorino, is also accusing Cuomo and his aides of possibly breaking the law. He says state law requires that any evidence of criminal activity by a Moreland Act Commission be forwarded to the state police and other law enforcement officials. The governor shut down the commission before that happened.

Astorino spoke outside the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan, where he repeated his call for a special state prosecutor.

“Only a special prosecutor looking into state laws can tell us the truth on this,” Astorino said.

Cuomo reacted to Astorino’s charges at an event on Long Island.

“That’s entertaining,” Cuomo said with a laugh.

Cuomo says he’s never heard of the theory that Astorino is proposing on possible criminal actions. The governor says he told commission members when he disbanded the panel that they should turn over any possible evidence of wrongdoing to law enforcement.

Cuomo says commission co-chairman Onondaga DA William Fitzpatrick, who Cuomo says is the senior co-chairman of the commission, has already said in a statement issued Monday that no one interfered with the investigations.

“The real question is, was the commission independent in the decision that it made?” Cuomo said. “Sometimes there is a definitive source. And the co-chair of the commission said definitively yesterday that he made all the decisions with his co-chairs. Period.”

The lengthy New York Times report on the Moreland commission cited emails by Fitzpatrick complaining about interference from Cuomo’s top aide.

The governor was asked why the other two co-chairs, which include Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice, who is running for Congress, have not spoken out. Cuomo says if they disagreed with Fitzpatrick, then they would have spoken up by now.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.