New York Governor Andrew Cuomo???s reelection campaign is being dogged by a growing corruption scandal of his own making. Cuomo (D) has been under fire for allegedly interfering with a commission he appointed to investigate public corruption. Further, his aides may have been caught trying to influence members of the commission to whitewash the governor???s role. The scandal has attracted attention from the press and from the US Attorney in Manhattan, whose office is currently investigating Cuomo???s actions. Now, three polls in the governor???s race show that the voters are paying attention too, and Cuomo???s expected cruise to a second term could be about to get bumpy.
The scandal centers on New York???s public corruption law, known as the Moreland Act. Dating back to 1907, the Moreland Act empowers the governor to appoint a commission to, ???examine and investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau, or commission of the state.??? Moreland Commissions, as they are known, have subpoena powers to call any witnesses and collect any documentation necessary to investigate potential public corruption.
Last July, in response to a federal prosecutor???s complaint against six New York politicians, Cuomo appointed a Moreland Commission to investigate official misconduct and make recommendations for changes to state election and campaign finance laws. Cuomo and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) took the extra step of having the commissioners designated as deputy attorneys general, to underscore the seriousness of the commission???s work. Commission co-chairman William Fitzpatrick ??? a sitting district attorney ??? said Cuomo wanted the commission to be independent.
???He???s not looking for rubber stamps,??? Fitzpatrick told the New York Times. ???He???s looking for an independent commission, and we???ll do what Deep Throat told Bob Woodward to do: follow the money.??? Cuomo himself stated his desire for an independent look at New York state governance when he formed the commission, promising, ???Anything they want to look at, they can look at ??? me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.???
Despite the tough talk, however, when the commission quickly subpoenaed an ad-buying firm connected to Cuomo???s 2012 election, the governor???s office moved to end the inquiry. According to the Times investigation, Cuomo most senior aide called Fitzpatrick and ordered him to have the subpoena withdrawn. The commission complied. The Times reported that Cuomo???s office intervened in the commission???s activities on numerous occasions to protect Cuomo allies or avoid exposing the governor to negative press. Cuomo disbanded the commission less than a year after he appointed it.
Cuomo maintains that he did nothing wrong, insisting that he has the right as governor to direct the commission???s work. ???It???s not a legal question. The Moreland Commission was my commission,??? Cuomo told Crain???s New York Business. ???It???s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. So, interference? I can???t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.??? That defense in the midst of the controversy is a stark departure from his stated intentions in forming the commission.
New York voters disagree with the governor???s assessment of his conduct. Three recent polls in the governor???s race indicate that while the scandal has not had an appreciable affect on the race, voters believe that Cuomo???s actions in the Moreland Commission scandal were inappropriate. More than 75% of respondents in the Quinnipiac poll said Cuomo???s decision to shut down the commission was due to political considerations. A plurality (49%) in Siena???s pollsaid they believe newspaper reports that Cuomo interfered with the commission???s investigation. And Marist found that 62% of registered voters think Cuomo should not have had input into the commission???s work, with a majority calling his involvement ???unethical.???
Cuomo???s Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, trails by nearly 2-1; but he has attracted fundraising support from presidential aspirants Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI). Now the scandal has given him an avenue of attack that could help close the gap. Astorino recently likened Cuomo???s actions to those of an organized crime boss, saying, ???[Cuomo] suggesting to the commission members where they should go with an investigation is like saying he wants to make an offer [they] can???t refuse. This is Andrew Cuomo’s Watergate in the making.???
Astorino isn???t the only one hammering Cuomo over the scandal. In an editorial titled ???Gov. Cuomo???s Broken Promises, published on the same day as the investigation report, the New York Times editorial board blasted Cuomo for interfering with the commission???s investigation. The editorial stopped short of calling for Cuomo to apologize, or suggesting voters consider another candidate. But the reliably liberal editorial board came about as close as it is likely to get.
???Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran for office four years ago promising first and foremost to clean up Albany. Not only has he not done that, but now he is looking as bad as the forces he likes to attack,??? the editors said. ???It is up to the voters to decide whether to go on endorsing business as usual???New Yorkers will have to decide if their representatives are politicians they can trust, including Mr. Cuomo.???
Cuomo, like his father before him, has been rumored to have presidential ambitions. Before he could fulfill those ambitions, he would need to be reelected in November. At present, it does not appear that the Moreland Commission scandal is jeopardizing those chances; but it could end up making his expected victory a pyrrhic one, dirtying him up right in advance of the Democratic presidential primary.
Mark Impomeni is a freelance conservative opinion writer and blogger living in New Jersey.