Media umbrella protects Andrew Cuomo from swirling clouds of scandal

I’m old enough to remember when certain state governors were held personally responsible for abuses of power by their aides, and such stories received breathless 24/7 saturation news coverage, justified in part by the governor’s stature as a 2016 presidential contender.  Ah, well, that was long ago and far away.  (In political terms, anyway.  I come from New Jersey, and I seem to recall it being located rather close to New York.)

Now we get to enjoy the media placidly ignore a spectacular corruption scandal that cuts right to the heart of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s political appeal.  He’s supposed to be a tough guy who campaigned on cleaning up government, but when he heard the janitors outside his office door, the anti-corruption effort came to a comically abrupt halt.

It’s a juicy story, it’s simple as hell, and the parallels with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” story – a full blown media obsession, to the point of outright psychosis in certain quarters – are obvious.  But the first hint of a media swarm forming around Cuomo came when polls revealed he’s still in good shape to get re-elected, and his media courtiers jumped at the chance to report the joyous news.  (“Voters shrug at allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo,” squealed CBS News.  They didn’t put an exclamation point at the end of that headline, but its presence is clearly implied.)

The New York Times originally broke the story – which doesn’t have a cute “-gate” nickname yet, for some reason – but the Washington Post offers a better capsule summary, in a post entitled “Andrew Cuomo is in trouble – but probably not for re-election.”  I think there’s supposed to be an exclamation point after that one, too.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has three things going for him as he faces a reelection campaign this year. First, he’s a Cuomo, and the last name that helped him earn his current position, following in the footsteps of his popular father, former governor Mario Cuomo, likely still works some magic. Second, he’s managed to keep potent liberal challengers off the ballot. And third, and most importantly, he’s a Democrat in a heavily Democratic state.

Last week, the New York Times dropped what would in many places have been a deadly election-year story. It detailed how Cuomo first championed and then apparently scuttled an independent commission looking into corruption in the New York state government.

The story reports on how Cuomo set up the so-called Moreland Commission in response to a series of arrests in early 2013, holding a press conference to declare that it would “go a long way towards restoring that public trust.” Cuomo used the commission to score political points, running an ad in 2013 touting its creation.

“The politicians in Albany won’t like it, but I work for the people,” Cuomo says.

Well, at least one politician in Albany didn’t appreciate the investigations. And that politician was Andrew Cuomo.

The problem with creating a committee designed to investigate New York politics is that it will investigate New York politics, and that meant possibly investigating the governor. When the committee’s lead investigator issued a subpoena to a media firm that did a lot of business with Cuomo (apparently not knowing about the connection), the governor’s secretary quickly demanded that it be pulled back. While the governor appeared at times to be enthusiastic about the panel, telling it, “I will get what you need” and approvingly noting how frightened lawmakers were, ongoing tension between commission staffers loyal to Cuomo and those moving forward on the investigation resulted in other similar conflicts.

This spring, well shy of the originally stated duration of the commission, Cuomo announced that it would be folded, after some ethics measures — what the Times calls “modest improvements” — were included in the state’s budget.

Since the voters of New York are apparently cool with this, and the media certainly isn’t going to chirschristify this story into a round-the-clock firestorm that might get their attention, we might as well have a good laugh at how clumsy and obvious it is.

In a lengthy letter to the Times, Cuomo’s attorneys argued that the panel was never independent of his office. And, therefore, that it “cannot investigate the executive. It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.” The governor also pointed to statements from members of the commission during an appearance in Buffalo earlier this week, including from one of the leaders of the commission, William Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, who the original Times report depicts as acquiescent to Cuomo’s wishes throughout his tenure, released a statement absolving the governor of blame. “The governor in forming the commission announced that it would be an independent body. It was,” he wrote — with Cuomo echoing that sentiment anew. “I never said it couldn???t investigate me,” he said in Buffalo.

Wait a second.  Doesn’t that paragraph begin by promising to explain why it’s no big deal that the commission would decide not to investigate the Governor?  Because it ends with Fitzpatrick and Cuomo saying that it would be an independent body that could investigate him.

Also, the funny business with the media firm mentioned by the Washington Post (it’s called “Buying Time”) was a crucial moment in the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short life of the Moreland Commission, it was far from the only such incident reported by the New York Times.  They found “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.”  It’s a long article.  Here’s another fun excerpt, in which Cuomo has the bright idea to use the commission as a political weapon against his enemies in the legislature:

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.)

But it’s all good, because Cuomo is still up 37 points over Republican Rob Astorino (who the Post literally only bothers to name as a footnote to the story), and the incumbent governor cut a deal with the left-wing Working Families Party to keep them from running a spoiler against him, and he’s already using “heavy-footed” tactics to kick lively independent candidate Zephyr Teachout below the belt.  Suggestion for Astorino: change your name to something at least as catchy as “Zephyr,” and you might just get mentioned before the last paragraph of the story.  “Sharknado Astorino” has a nice ring to it.

There’s a bit more to the story than the sudden demise of the Moreland Commission.  Astorino has alleged that Cuomo violated state law, as reported by the New York Observer:

Mr. Astorino pointed to a statute in state executive law requiring the governor to pass on documentation of wrongdoing the commission collects to the state attorney general and the superintendent of the state police???and noted a New York Post article from last week which claimed the panel had uncovered several no-show jobs given to Independence Party vice chairman Giulio Cavallo. Mr. Cuomo is running on the Independence Party line, as well as the Democratic and Working Families Party lines in November.

Mr. Astorino said that the governor had refused to say if he had referred the information to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman or any other law enforcement professional???and called for a special state prosecutor to be appointed to look into the situation.

???The only way to get to the bottom of this is for Mr. Cuomo to produce evidence right now that Moreland criminal probes were referred to the state police and other law enforcement authorities, or for an impartial special state prosecutor to be appointed to look into why these cases were not referred,??? Mr. Astorino said. ???If Mr. Cuomo shut down criminal probes of political cronies without passing along accumulated evidence, that would be a very serious charge, indeed.???

And this isn’t just a political spat between Cuomo and his opponent, because the New York Times reports that Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara “has threatened to investigate the Cuomo administration for possible obstruction of justice or witness tampering,”  Bharara found it suspicious that several members of the defunct ethics commission suddenly began singing Cuomo’s praises in unison… right after the Governor and his staff made some phone calls that one commissioner described as “upsetting.”

Small wonder most of the three dozen commission members and other offiicals interviewed by the New York Times refused to be quoted by name, “for fear of antagonizing the governor or his aides.”

But this is all just a big fat nothingburger, eh, national media?  A U.S. attorney writes a letter to the sitting governor of New York warning him that his conduct might be crossing the line into outright witness tampering, and that’s a snore to the same people who combed through every email sent by the Christie administration in New Jersey, desperately hoping they might eventually find something that proved he ordered the Code Red on the George Washington Bridge?  One quick check to make sure the public-opinion needle hasn’t moved too much, and the story is over?  It is very, very, very good to be a Democrat.

And not so good to be a Republican looking at a huge polling deficit in a corrupt Democrat state.  Rob Astorino is angry that he isn’t getting much support from the Republican Governor’s Association… which just happens to be run by Chris Christie at the moment.  Christie treats Astorino like a dead man walking, culminating in a press conference where he growled, “I don’t have the juice to take a 37-point race and make it more competitive.  You know who does?  The candidate.”

Astorino responded by wondering if “there’s a side deal, or a quid prop quo, or a handshake” between Christie and Cuomo, and suggested that if Christie is “unable to do his job as RGA chair to help Republican candidates,” he might as well resign.  The Northeast is a curious land, where massive scandals engulfing a Democrat administration lead to knock-down, drag-out public fights between Republicans.