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Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Gensis Planet
New York Governor Cuomo's office intervened in corruption probe: NY Times
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's office meddled with a commission he created to root out corruption in state politics, pushing back whenever it focused on groups tied to Cuomo, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
The commission that Cuomo established in July 2013 to investigate violations of campaign finance laws and other matters was hobbled almost from the start by demands from the governor’s office, despite a public promise of independence, the Times said.
Within a year, it was disbanded by Cuomo, who had initially indicated it would operate for about 18 months.
Now the commission's scrapped probes, which included hundreds of emails, subpoenas and internal documents from politicians and state agencies, are being investigated by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the Times said. Federal prosecutors also are looking into what role Cuomo and his aides played in the panel's shutdown.
Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to calls about the Times story and a spokesman for Bharara declined to comment on it.
The bipartisan Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, more commonly known as the Moreland Commission, was created after the state capital was rocked by a series of scandals involving legislators, which Cuomo said had undermined the public's confidence in state government.
The commission was granted the power to subpoena state officials, lawmakers and records from state agencies, such as the Board of Elections.
"Anything they want to look at, they can look at - me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman," Cuomo, a Democrat, told reporters in August 2013.
But the commission soon encountered resistance from Cuomo's office when it issued a subpoena to a media-buying firm, Buying Time, which unbeknownst to investigators happened to include Cuomo as one of its clients, the Times said.
The governor's most senior aide, Lawrence Schwartz, directed the commission to withdraw the subpoena, which it did.
"This is wrong," Schwartz was quoted in the Times as telling the commission. "Pull it back."
Similar responses from Cuomo's office had shut down several other investigative efforts whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Cuomo or on issues that might cast him in a negative light, the Times said.
That included stopping a subpoena the commission planned to send to the Real Estate Board of New York, the trade group whose members have generously supported Cuomo, the Times said.
After he abruptly disbanded the commission in March and caught the eye of the U.S. attorney's office, Cuomo downplayed the idea that he had interfered with its work.
"It's my commission," the governor told the editorial board of Crain's New York Business in late April. "I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me."
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Additional reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Bill Trott)
With Albany rocked by a seemingly endless barrage of scandals and arrests, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo set up a high-powered commission last summer to root out corruption in state politics. It was barely two months old when its investigators, hunting for violations of campaign-finance laws, issued a subpoena to a media-buying firm that had placed millions of dollars’ worth of advertisements for the New York State Democratic Party.
The investigators did not realize that the firm, Buying Time, also counted Mr. Cuomo among its clients, having bought the airtime for his campaign when he ran for governor in 2010.
Word that the subpoena had been served quickly reached Mr. Cuomo’s most senior aide, Lawrence S. Schwartz. He called one of the commission’s three co-chairs, William J. Fitzpatrick, the district attorney in Syracuse.
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U.S. Issues Subpoena in Inquiry on Cuomo’s Closing of Moreland CommissionJULY 17, 2014
U.S. Said to Seek Records From Anticorruption Panel’s MembersMAY 6, 2014
Voters Disapprove of Cuomo’s Shutdown of Anticorruption Panel, Poll ShowsAPRIL 22, 2014
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York in December.Cuomo Caught Up in Rare Conflict With ProsecutorAPRIL 10, 2014
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s disbanding of the Moreland Commission was questioned by the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara.U.S. Attorney Criticizes Cuomo’s Closing of PanelAPRIL 9, 2014
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, shown on March 20, announced the demise of his ethics commission on Saturday with little fanfare.Cuomo’s Push to End Moreland Commission Draws BacklashMARCH 31, 2014
“This is wrong,” Mr. Schwartz said, according to Mr. Fitzpatrick, whose account was corroborated by three other people told about the call at the time. He said the firm worked for the governor, and issued a simple directive:
“Pull it back.”
The subpoena was swiftly withdrawn. The panel’s chief investigator explained why in an email to the two other co-chairs later that afternoon.
“They apparently produced ads for the governor,” she wrote.
The pulled-back subpoena was the most flagrant example of how the commission, established with great ceremony by Mr. Cuomo in July 2013, was hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor’s office.
While the governor now maintains he had every right to monitor and direct the work of a commission he had created, many commissioners and investigators saw the demands as politically motivated interference that hamstrung an undertaking that the governor had publicly vowed would be independent.
The commission developed a list of promising targets, including a lawmaker suspected of using campaign funds to support a girlfriend in another state and pay tanning-salon bills. The panel also highlighted activities that it saw as politically odious but perfectly legal, like exploiting a loophole to bundle enormous campaign contributions.
But a three-month examination by The New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.
Ultimately, Mr. Cuomo abruptly disbanded the commission halfway through what he had indicated would be an 18-month life. And now, as the Democratic governor seeks a second term in November, federal prosecutors are investigating the roles of Mr. Cuomo and his aides in the panel’s shutdown and are pursuing its unfinished business.
Before its demise, Mr. Cuomo’s aides repeatedly pressured the commission, many of whose members and staff thought they had been given a once-in-a-career chance at cleaning up Albany. As a result, the panel’s brief existence — and the writing and editing of its sole creation, a report of its preliminary findings — was marred by infighting, arguments and accusations. Things got so bad that investigators believed a Cuomo appointee was monitoring their communications without their knowledge. Resignations further crippled the commission. In the end, the governor got the Legislature to agree to a package of ethics reforms far less ambitious than those the commission had recommended — a result Mr. Cuomo hailed as proof of the panel’s success.
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While some reports of tension between the governor’s office and the commission surfaced in the news media at the time, the examination by The Times provides the first full accounting of how extensively the governor’s aides involved themselves in the commission’s work and the level of disruption that this caused.
The examination included a review of hundreds of emails, subpoenas and internal documents and interviews with more than three dozen commission members, employees, legislative staff members and other officials. Few of those interviewed agreed to be quoted by name for fear of antagonizing the governor or his aides.
Mr. Cuomo said early on that the commission would be “totally independent” and free to pursue wrongdoing anywhere in state government, including in his own office. “Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman,” he said last August.
In a 13-page statement responding to The Times’s questions, Mr. Cuomo’s office defended its handling of the commission. It said the commission was created by and reported to the governor, and therefore he could not be accused of interfering with it.
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Document: Governor Cuomo’s Office Responds
While he allowed the commission the independence to investigate whatever it wanted, the governor’s office said, it would have been a conflict for a panel he created to investigate his own administration.
“A commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive,” the statement said. “It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.”
Yet, The Times found that the governor’s office interfered with the commission when it was looking into groups that were politically close to him. In fact, the commission never tried to investigate his administration.
Beyond that, Mr. Cuomo’s office said, the commission needed the governor’s guiding hand because it was, simply, a mess: Its staff was plagued by “relationship issues” and was “mired in discord.” The commissioners, whom he earlier called some of New York’s sharpest governmental and legal minds, “did not understand the budget or legislative process or how state government worked,” the statement said. Their subpoenas often had “no logic or basis,” and those that touched on the governor’s supporters were more for show than for legitimate investigative purposes, the statement said.
At the center of the battle between independent-minded commissioners and Mr. Cuomo and his aides were two hard-charging lawyers: E. Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor who was the panel’s chief of investigations; and Regina M. Calcaterra, a former securities lawyer who, as the commission’s executive director, routinely conveyed the wishes of the governor’s office.
Working closely with Ms. Calcaterra was Mr. Schwartz, the secretary to the governor, a job far more powerful than the title suggests.
Yet never far from the action was Mr. Cuomo himself, making the most of the levers of power at his disposal and operating behind closed doors in ways that sometimes appeared at odds with his public statements.
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Over two days of meetings with the commission’s co-chairs last September, Mr. Cuomo personally suggested a way to squeeze members of the Legislature into enacting ethics-reform measures: by issuing subpoenas to the law firms where many legislators earn sizable incomes for part-time work.
(Months later, however, Mr. Cuomo made it sound as if he bore no responsibility for those subpoenas: In a private meeting, according to one of the participants, he ascribed the subpoenas to “cowboys” on the commission.)
In another pressure-packed session, Mr. Schwartz specifically told the commission’s co-chairs that the governor himself was off limits.
As if to demonstrate the competing views of interference, Mr. Fitzpatrick now says he agreed with the decision to pull back the subpoena to the governor’s media-buying firm, though others on the commission were outraged.
Many of them, including some of New York’s most senior prosecutors, had believed they would have free rein to pursue investigations wherever they led and would be independent of the executive branch. What became of the commission left many of them disillusioned.
“The thing that bothered me the most is we were created with all this fanfare and the governor was going to clean up Albany,” said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State and a special adviser to the commission. “And it became purely a vehicle for the governor to get legislation. Another notch for his re-election campaign. That was it.”
Quick look over there. Traffic cop!