Earlier this year, New York's governor Andrew Cuomo (D) looked to be in a commanding political position. With sky-high approval ratings and several legislative achievements to his name, his reelection effort looked like a formality. But this summer, he's faced unflattering headlines about a scandal surrounding his administration's interference with an ethics commission — particularly after a lengthy investigative report by Susanne Craig, William Rashbaum, and Thomas Kaplan of the New York Times. Now, a US Attorney is investigating the situation. Here's what we know so far.
Where'd the commission come from?
After news of several corruption scandals involving members of New York's legislature, and the legislature's subsequent failure to pass an ethics reform bill, Cuomo announced in July 2013 that, along with the state's independently elected Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, he was establishing a 25-member commission to investigate corruption in government. The commission would be empowered to issue subpoenas, so long as its three co-chairs (two of which were appointed by Cuomo, and one by Schneiderman) all signed on. The governor's authority to establish such a commission was based on a law called the Moreland Act of 1907, so it became known as the Moreland Commission, though its official title was the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.
Both Cuomo and Schneiderman repeatedly said, at first, that the commission would have broad authority to investigate corruption. "Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman," Cuomo said in August 2013. And Schneiderman told the New York Times that "there's no substantial legal argument against them looking into every aspect of the state government," and that "their jurisdiction is as broad as we can grant using the full authority of my office and of the governor's office."
However, many observers now believe that Cuomo merely intended to use the commission as a tool to strong-arm recalcitrant legislators into supporting an ethics bill. Indeed, as Chris Smith of New York Magazine pointed out, the governor's office later admitted the commission was formed "for a specific purpose — to get legislation passed dealing with the legislature." Unofficially, the idea seems to have been that the commission's subpoena power would make corrupt legislators nervous and pressure them into supporting ethics reform.
What did the commission do that was controversial?
If the commission was mainly supposed to strong-arm the legislature, its chief investigator, former assistant US attorney Danya Perry, apparently didn't get that memo. Perry proceeded to try and investigate actual corruption, including from places other than the legislature. (The Times called her "a newcomer to politics.")
The commission never actually tried to investigate the governor's office or the executive branch more generally. But in two key cases, it explored subpoenaing certain allies of the governor — which resulted in Cuomo's top aide, Larry Schwartz, making his strong objections known:
- Buying Time, a media firm that has placed political ads for Cuomo: The commission subpoenaed this firm to investigate possible campaign finance illegalities from the state Democratic Party. But according to the Times' reporting, Schwartz soon called one of the commission's co-chairs and ordered the subpoena be rescinded — and it was. However, the subpoena was sent out again a month later, and stuck this time.
- The Real Estate Board of New York: This trade group of powerful real estate interests includes many key Cuomo donors. But Perry wanted to examine how it won an important new tax break, and prepared to subpoena the group's records of contacts with politicians. When Schwartz found out, he phoned one of the commission's co-chairs "in a fury," the Times reported, and ordered no subpoena be sent. None was. However, the commission did ask the board to turn over the documents voluntarily, and it complied.
Beyond this, the Times' report, based on interviews and internal commission documents and emails, makes it quite clear that the Cuomo administration repeatedly got involved in the commission's activities. For instance, Schwartz met with the three heads of the commission and told them they should investigate the legislature, not the governor's office. Cuomo himself called the commission's three co-chairs into a meeting, and then suggested that they subpoena law firms that pay large salaries to certain legislators. And certain politically unflattering topics were omitted from the commission's final report, after being included in earlier drafts.