In August 2013, a month after he announced the creation of a Moreland Commission to investigate corruption in state government, Andrew Cuomo said it was authorized to pursue wrongdoing wherever the evidence led, declaring, “Anything they want to look at, they can look at—me, the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, the Comptroller, any Senator, any Assemblyman.”
Those remarks were made a year before he sought re-election, and the convening of the panel seemed a tacit admission that he had failed to make good on a 2010 campaign promise to root out corruption in Albany. Proof of that failure could be seen in the steady parade of elected officials—most in either the Southern District courthouse in Manhattan or the Eastern District one in Brooklyn—who had gone into business for themselves.
But just as President Trump’s allies and apologists have been forced to argue time and again that what he says shouldn’t be taken literally, the Governor has made clear during his first nine years in office that when he says he is willing to let the chips fall where they may, he really means anyplace far from his doorstep.
He disbanded that Moreland Commission nine months ahead of its scheduled 18-month existence, claiming he had gotten the necessary reforms in a March 2014 budget deal with legislative leaders to accomplish the panel’s mission without any further probing.
Then the Indictments Started Flying
Then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was so angry about the premature shutdown that he commandeered the Moreland Commission’s files and conducted a thorough probe. This eventually led to the indictments and convictions of those legislative leaders with whom Mr. Cuomo had purportedly cleaned up Albany’s act—Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—twice, with prosecutors having to prove their cases a second time after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Virginia case redefined the standard for proving public corruption.
As a kind of bonus, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office—by then being run by Geoffrey Berman—last year convicted Joe Percoco, who at the time that Governor made his grand pronouncement was his top aide, for taking $315,000 in bribes for his role in steering two lucrative contracts that were part of the Buffalo Billion economic-development initiative to firms that just happened to be major Cuomo donors.
Given this history, eyebrows were raised by Mr. Cuomo’s response late last month when asked whether he and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie had discussed what was supposed to be a secret vote by a Heastie appointee last January on whether the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics should do a separate probe of Mr. Percoco’s conduct: “We’ve never had an inappropriate conversation about JCOPE.”
He then lapsed into the kind of lawyerly peek-a-boo defense favored by his late father, three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, when looking to slip reporters’ punches, saying, “Remember, legally, the only legal obligation is on the commissioners not to disclose. If a commissioner called you or someone else and told you something, you could tell whoever you want. The I.G. talked to the people who have the legal obligation.”
In other words, the Deputy Inspector General who conducted the inquiry, who was tapped for that chore because State Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro recused herself due to her past work first directly for the Governor and later as Executive Director of JCOPE, hadn’t sought to question either Mr. Cuomo or Mr. Heastie because neither committed wrongdoing by receiving information that was leaked.
The moral issues involved—should the Governor be finding out how a Commissioner voted on whether to probe an already-convicted close aide and friend in a confidential session of the state’s ethics watchdog?—were not going to keep Mr. Cuomo awake at night.
Not Big on Independence
An intrepid prosecutor might venture a few questions as to why one member of the JCOPE panel was willing to share that information, and whether it was a Cuomo appointee who did the blabbing. If so, it would mean that while several people once-prominent in the Governor’s orbit are in the process of serving their country as Federal inmates—Mr. Skelos began his 51-month sentence in January at Otisville upstate and Mr. Percoco joined him there on a six-year sentence in April, while Mr. Silver remains free while appealing his conviction—Mr. Cuomo is a recidivist when it comes to interfering with independent panels that in theory are meant to help ensure clean government.
By his own admission, he is a control freak. There are limits to which he can take this compulsion without putting himself on shaky legal ground, however, and a case can be made that he has pushed past them every chance he got.
In the two cases arising from the Buffalo Billion boondoggle, Federal prosecutors made clear that they found no evidence that the Governor had any involvement in the machinations that earned Mr. Percoco and Mr. Cuomo’s economic guru, Alain Kalayeros, their prison stripes.
But trial testimony showed that Mr. Percoco, after taking a leave from his job as Executive Secretary to the Governor to manage his 2014 re-election campaign, had continued using his state office in Manhattan to conduct business. Mr. Cuomo has claimed that he assumed his loyal aide—who in his late teens began working for Gov. Mario Cuomo—was merely winding down state affairs when he saw him in the office. The frequency with which witnesses who also worked there said they saw Mr. Percoco while he was supposed to be on leave suggested that if the Governor—whose Manhattan office was adjacent to his aide’s—didn’t know that he was violating the rules regarding campaign work being practiced in a government office, it was because he didn’t want to know.
JCOPE had looked at Mr. Percoco’s activities while on leave based on complaints brought by then-State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who was Mr. Cuomo’s GOP opponent in last year’s campaign.
GOP Chair: ‘A Smoking Gun’
After the JCOPE leak that reached the Governor’s ears was disclosed last month by the Albany Times Union, Mr. Cox’s successor, Nick Langworthy called it “a smoking gun [that] proves what we have been saying all along, which is that Cuomo and JCOPE have been colluding to ensure he evades prosecution for his crimes.”
Appearances are not helped by the fact that, as the Times Union noted, all of JCOPE’s Executive Directors—Ellen Bigen, Ms. Tagliafierro and Seth Agata—who held the job at the time of the Percoco discussion but resigned six months ago, had previously worked for Mr. Cuomo. (Ms. Biben, whose tenure working for him dated back to a top position in his office when he was State Attorney General, was his first Inspector General as Governor before being appointed to run JCOPE in the spring of 2012, which had raised immediate questions as to how independent the then-new watchdog would be.
Mr. Cuomo hasn’t let himself be preoccupied with what other people’s perceptions might be. And chances are he wasn’t overcome by misgivings when he learned of the intimidating effect his finding out how one Commissioner, Julie Garcia, had voted had on her. The New York Times reported Dec. 2 that Mr. Heastie’s General Counsel, Howard Vargas, had texted her shortly after the vote was taken, and when they spoke by phone, he told her the Governor knew which way she went. Mr. Vargas said that Mr. Cuomo had spoken with Mr. Heastie and indicated he knew she voted against his interests, The Times reported.
She declined to say how she had voted, but presumably the Governor had hoped there wouldn’t be a state investigation and one more possible forum where he could be embarrassed. A case could be made that Mr. Cuomo had suffered enough when the indictment against Mr. Percoco described his having been captured on tape chanting about his hunger for “ziti,” a code word for money immortalized in an episode of “The Sopranos” more than a decade earlier. Beyond the organized-crime association, the Governor had to be cringing over a recorded conversation involving Mr. Percoco and a corrupt cohort that suggested his former top aide was suspended in adolescence.
Dismayed by Shoddy Probe
Ms. Garcia, in noting how few of the people involved were interviewed by the Inspector General and that probers hadn’t sought records of her texts and phone conversations with Mr. Vargas, told The Times, “I expected the I.G. would do a thorough investigation. It appears I was wrong.”
The IG sent a letter to JCOPE in early October stating that it had been unable to substantiate the complaint of an improper leak, which if proven would have been a misdemeanor. Less than a week later, Ms. Garcia sent Mr. Vargas a text stating that she was resigning from JCOPE and asking where she should send a letter to that effect.
If Mr. Heastie, who had appointed Ms. Garcia to the panel last year, didn’t seem perturbed by the Governor’s apparently having gotten information about how she voted, it was in keeping with the cozy relationship the two men have developed since his promotion to succeed Mr. Silver as Assembly Speaker in February 2015.
Mr. Molinaro wasn’t as nonchalant about either the leak or the lackluster probe. He said in a phone interview Dec. 4 that it showed “there is no independent watchdog of state government, and JCOPE is no more independent than it was two or three years ago.”
‘A Form of Extortion’
As to Mr. Cuomo’s contention that he would have done nothing improper if he was told by a JCOPE Commissioner how someone had voted, rather than soliciting that information, Mr. Molinaro said, “However it happened, it’s not appropriate.” And given the Governor’s power within state government, his having been able to learn of Ms. Garcia’s vote “in and of itself is a form of extortion. If you don’t believe your actions are going to remain confidential, you are going to act not in the interests of law and good government but of self-preservation.”
During last year’s gubernatorial campaign, in response to Mr. Cuomo branding him “a Trump Mini-Me,” Mr. Molinaro had emphasized that while he generally supported the President, there were also areas where he strongly disagreed with him. Talking about the abuse of power he said was inherent in the Governor gaining knowledge of Ms. Garcia’s secret vote, the Dutchess County Executive said that he was astonished that “the same people who are calling for impeachment are silent” about the transgressions involved in this case.
There’s a wide gap between the misdemeanor that most likely was committed in letting Mr. Cuomo know that a JCOPE Commissioner had voted against his interests and the kind of high crimes House Democrats seem on the verge of alleging regarding Mr. Trump’s conduct, most notably the withholding of $391 million in desperately needed military aid for Ukraine to squeeze its President to announce an investigation into the man he perceived as his potentially toughest re-election foe.
But if the Governor has enough of a sense of consequences to lack Mr. Trump’s recklessness when it comes to acting unlawfully, he still creates uneasiness about flouting rules and boundaries if he sees a political advantage in it.
Under the budget deal that allowed him to shut down the Moreland Commission while claiming he had gotten the reforms he needed, Mr. Cuomo also managed to limit public financing of state election campaigns to that year’s race for Comptroller, prompting New York Public Interest Research Group head Blair Horner to say, “At worst, it’s a cynical move to create the illusion of reform while in reality creating a program that will fail, and to kill the Moreland Commission.”
Left Big Donations Intact
The changes did not affect unlimited donations to housekeeping accounts for political parties, which while ostensibly intended to help all their candidates often had the greatest slice peeled off for those at the top of the ticket, despite a statement by the Moreland Commission in a preliminary report three months earlier decrying a “pay-to-play political culture driven by large checks.”
One of Mr. Cuomo’s funniest lines at the time was that he believed the Moreland Commission had been a “phenomenal success,” but shutting it down nine months early would prevent it from being a financial burden on state taxpayers.
The Governor’s latest “reform” panel, the Public Financing Commission, has recommended a state-funded financing program that would give matching funds to candidates for state offices and legislative seats but also let Albany’s Big Kahuna continue sopping up the gravy from the biggest donors, even as it raised voting thresholds that threaten the survival of the Working Families Party and every other small party except the state Conservative Party.
Under the panel’s recommendations, which neither Mr. Heastie nor Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins seem inclined to amend, maximum contributions will be pared down, including a drop from $70,000 to $18,000 that can be given for candidates for Governor. Yet that limit—which would still leave the maximum contribution more than three times higher than the $5,400 limit for candidates for President—would not take effect until 2024, giving Mr. Cuomo one more shot at the sky’s-the-limit max if he seeks a fourth term two years earlier.
He’s been fairly quiet about the panel’s recommendations, having made his biggest statement in designating Jay Jacobs, a close political ally who chairs both the State Democratic Party and its Nassau chapter, a member who just happened to chart its course without actually being named its head.
A Cuomovellian Twist
How it altered its agenda to including raising vote thresholds—purportedly to contain costs from the public-financing program—while making those thresholds effective with next year’s elections but delaying the financing program another four years is yet another example of the Cuomovellian touch in Albany.
Handing the chore off to a commission allow Mr. Cuomo—as well as Mr. Heastie and Ms. Stewart Cousins and their fellow Democrats—to disclaim responsibility if it fails to produce positive changes. Whether it will keep him from the clutches of an audacious prosecutor remains to be seen. And while Mr. Cuomo escaped criminal charges in connection with the Moreland follies, the digging by newspapers led by the Daily News and New York Times and Mr. Bharara’s investigators showed the lengths to which he stooped to try to block any reforms that might inconvenience him or his supporters.
While his appointees to the Moreland panel initially claimed they had been given a free hand, they quickly discovered if they got too close to the Governor, that panel’s Executive Director, Regina Calcaterra, looked to slam on the brakes. (The Times subsequently noted that she played a similar role in an earlier commission created to examine power outages on Long Island in the wake of Superstorm Sandy seven years ago.) She and Larry Schwartz, who along with Mr. Percoco did much of Mr. Cuomo’s political enforcement work, headed off an attempt to subpoena the records of the Real Estate Board of New York, one of the Governor’s biggest contributors.
When three panel members sought a meeting with the Governor to air their complaints about Ms. Calcaterra’s interference, they first had to endure Mr. Schwartz’s explanation that the commission, notwithstanding Mr. Cuomo’s statement to the media a few weeks earlier, was created to investigate the Legislature, not trouble the Governor.
Subpoena Close to Home
When they finally got an audience with Mr. Cuomo, The Times reported, he suggested that instead of subpoenaing legislative leaders, the commission should subpoena the law firms where they picked up considerable supplemental income. But when they subpoenaed a media firm, Buying Time, whose biggest state client was the Governor, Mr. Schwartz had it rescinded. And when the panel began seeking information about who was funding the Committee to Save New York, which Mr. Cuomo had created to pursue his pet projects, the committee quickly disbanded, and references to it were deleted by Ms. Calcaterra, according to The Times.
When the Governor needed someone to solicit comments from Moreland Commission members that they never felt his hot breath on their necks during their discussions, he tapped Mr. Percoco for that chore.
And the panel’s draft report, issued at the end of 2013, wound up being written by someone designated by the Governor’s office.
Mr. Bharara scolded Mr. Cuomo but didn’t charge him, a pattern that would repeat itself three years later when both his office and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigated Mayor de Blasio for possible campaign-finance violations and found he had violated “the spirit of the law.”
None of this has bothered the state’s unions. The public-employee contingent has benefited from his transformation late in his first term from someone who after taking office balanced the state budget at their expense by using a threat of massive layoffs to get contracts packed with concessions, then came back for more the following year by pushing through Tier 6 of the pension system by pledging to reluctant legislators that in return he would forsake another campaign promise and let them continue to draw their own district lines.
A Friend When Needed
He softened his stance at the bargaining table starting during 2014, when he was up for re-election the first time, and solidified his support among public-employee unions last year by steering to passage a bill that offered a safeguard against massive membership defections once the Supreme Court found that requiring nonmembers to pay the equivalent of dues in return for the services they received violated the Constitution.
But whatever comfort they take in being able to regard a powerful Governor as an ally at a time when unions are under siege nationally, there is a risk in continuing to indulge Mr. Cuomo’s machinations and pursuit of petty grievances.
There’s always a chance that he’ll abruptly decide he no longer needs to be as accommodating to labor and will revert to the “new kind of Democrat” mode that fueled his 2010 campaign and the first two years of his tenure.
There is also what may be a more-realistic downside: that there will be a reaction to the shift to the left in areas like criminal justice that has begun statewide since Democrats got control last January of the State Senate along with the Assembly and the governorship. If a case could be made by a Republican opponent that services—most notably in areas like mass transit and law enforcement—aren’t being delivered as efficiently, and that Mr. Cuomo isn’t sufficiently concerned about workers’ struggles because he’s come to take their unions for granted, he could be vulnerable.
Those unions wouldn’t even have to reflect back on Mario Cuomo’s defeat when he sought a fourth term 25 years ago. They could ask a more-recent victim of arrogance, overconfidence and self-indulgence who never saw the runaway train bearing down on her until the point of impact: Hillary C.
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