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Cynthia Nixon Not The First To Call For A Moreland Commission On Corruption

Frank Franklin II
New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon responds to a question during a news conference in Albany, N.Y., in March. Nixon is challenging Cuomo, a two-term incumbent, for the Democratic Party nomination in September.

When Democratic candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon called for a state Moreland Act Commission to investigate government corruption Tuesday, she was not the first to do so. Her opponent, Governor Andrew Cuomo, also requested and created a Moreland Commission to look at potential illegal activities in state government, but he disbanded it as part of a budget deal several months later.

Nixon says if she’s elected governor, she’ll appoint a corruption commission, using powers under the state’s Moreland Act, to investigate state government for corruption. Nixon says she’s reacting to a report in the Albany Times Union that raised questions about a health care company, Crystal Run. It received over $25 million in state grants after contributing money to Governor Cuomo’s campaign. According to the newspaper, top officials of Crystal Run, and their relatives, gave $400,000 to Cuomo's campaign, the bulk of it in $25,000 donations at a 2013 fundraiser. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan is investigating.  

Blair Horner, with the government reform organization New York Public Interest Research Group, says if the commission were truly independent it would be a good idea, following the corruption convictions of the former legislative leaders and a former top aide to Cuomo.

“It’s pretty clear that all of the state ethics watchdogs are not really meeting their role,” said Horner who said there’s been an “unbelievable” series of scandals in the legislature and governor’s office in recent years.

“If it weren’t for the feds, we’d know nothing about the vast majority of them,” he said.

The last Moreland Commission was created by Governor Cuomo in July of 2013. Cuomo, who was annoyed with the Senate and Assembly leaders for failing to agree to ethics and campaign finance reforms, vowed to fully investigate any potential illegalities.

“Your mission is to put a system in place that says, ‘We’re going to punish the wrong doers,’” Cuomo said on July 2, 2013. “And to the extent that people have violated the public trust, they will be punished.”

But the commission, which included several district attorneys from around the state, never finished its work.

An investigation by the New York Times found the governor and his staff were accused of meddling in the commission’s work, and ordering commissioners to pull back from investigations that might lead to the governor or any of his associates. By that fall Cuomo said he no longer believed that the commission should investigate anything within his own executive branch, but should stick to looking at the legislature.   

By late March of 2014, Cuomo had agreed to end the commission’s probes, in exchange for a budget deal that included some ethics reforms.

Cuomo at the time said he was satisfied with the agreement.

“I said consistently that if they passed that law, we would end Moreland,” Cuomo said in early April of 2014. “And we have.”

In that 2014 deal, lawmakers agreed to create an independent enforcement officer at the State Board of Elections. In April of this year, the board took steps to reign in the independent investigator, and now requires her to check with them before starting any probes.  

The Moreland Commission had begun numerous investigations, and they turned the cases over to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, after Bharara requested the records. The Moreland probes helped lead to the corruption convictions of both of the legislative leaders who were in power in 2013, and the conviction of the governor’s former closest aide, Joe Percoco, on bribery charges.

Horner, with NYPIRG, says it doesn’t have to be up to Nixon to begin a probe of potential corruption in government. He says the current governor, or anyone else running for governor, including GOP candidate Marc Molinaro, could do it, too.

“If it’s governor-elect Nixon, or governor Cuomo, or governor Molinaro, whoever the heck the next governor is, it would be a good way to have clean break with the past,” Horner said. “In terms of all of the problems we’ve seen with the legislative and executive branches.”

A spokeswoman for Cuomo’s campaign, Abbey Fashouer, did not directly answer questions about the proposal, but pointed to a reaction on Twitter from an aide to Cuomo’s campaign, Lis Smith. Smith called it “more political attacks” and said the commission should investigate why Nixon released just one year’s worth of tax returns instead of ten.

Nixon’s idea was endorsed, also on Twitter, by Bharara, who said “The first Moreland Commission never should have been disbanded, and every New Yorker should support a strong anti-corruption measure like this.”

Bharara, who was fired by President Donald Trump and now has a podcast, has not ruled out running for attorney general this year.   

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.