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Corruption Panel's Battle with Lawmakers Drags On

10:05 PM, Sep 29, 2013   |    comments
Albany State Capitol Building. Flickr Creative Commons license: wallyg
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By Jon Campbell, Gannett Albany Bureau

ALBANY - A corruption-busting panel's investigation is threatening to drive a wedge between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers.

The Moreland Commission of district attorneys and law-enforcement officials tapped by Cuomo to ferret out government corruption finds itself locked in a battle with the state Legislature. Lawmakers continue to balk at complying with a broad request for documents and records related to their outside income and clients.

But as the commission continues to push, it could have an impact on the relationship between Cuomo and lawmakers, which in public has remained generally positive since he took office in 2011. Cuomo and all 213 state legislators are up for re-election in 2014.

"It depends on how pushy the commission is and whether or not the governor weighs in on their side," said former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, a Democrat who represented part of the Bronx through 2010. "But if he stays out of it and lets them do their work -- as he should -- I don't think it will have much of an impact."

The stalemate between lawmakers and the Moreland panel dates back to late last month, when the commission mailed a letter to an array of lawmakers who earned more than $20,000 in outside income in 2012. The letter broadly requested "information regarding their outside employment" and a list of lawmakers' "clients in any civil matters or in any publicly filed criminal matters."

Through their attorneys, the state Assembly and Senate replied with a joint letter on Sept. 20, questioning the panel's legal authority to demand the information and pointing it to the lawmakers' mandated disclosure forms, which includes information on their income but little on clients.

The letter led a Moreland spokeswoman to lash out at the Legislature, calling their position "legally indefensible" and "ethically repugnant." The spokeswoman alluded to the panel's subpoena powers, promising to pursue "a number of avenues" to compel lawmakers to comply with the request.

Cuomo, for his part, has backed the commission's request, telling reporters earlier this week that he believes the panel can legally force the lawmakers to provide information.

 "This effort is all about restoring the trust and restoring people's faith in government, and I think the more information, the better -- especially when there are real questions that people have been asking," Cuomo said Monday.

Others have questioned whether the Moreland panel's work -- and its targeting of the Legislature -- infringes on the state's separation of powers. The commission was created under the state Moreland Act, a decades-old law that allows the governor to appoint powerful commissions to investigate the Executive Branch.

Whether the commission's actions damage Cuomo's relationship with the state Legislature could have significant ramifications for 2014, when lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol.

Many of Cuomo's major accomplishments since taking office -- including a property-tax cap and the state's same-sex marriage law -- have required legislative approval and have come after extensive negotiations with top lawmakers. He will likely be pushing a robust legislative package in 2014 as he begins his first campaign for re-election.

Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Greenburgh, Westchester County, said it is "wholly improper for the Moreland Commission, an Executive Branch entity, to intimidate the Legislature."

"The Legislature is under scrutiny from the executive branch under the threat of prosecution," Abinanti said. "We all know a district attorney could indict a ham sandwich if he wants to. What they're doing is intimidating legislators."

Abinanti, who maintains a part-time law practice but didn't earn enough in 2012 to receive a Moreland letter, said the panel should turn its focus to the state's various economic development initiatives to determine whether there is any conflict of interest as state grants and tax breaks are awarded.

Cuomo has asked the Moreland Commission to issue a preliminary report by December, complete with the initial findings of its investigation as well as ways the state's campaign finance and anti-corruption laws can be tightened or boosted to combat unethical activity.

Following a Moreland hearing in Albany on Tuesday, commission co-chair William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, said he was open to sitting down with the Legislature to hear their concerns.

"I know people are justifiably anxious to see what we're going to do in response to the letter from the Assembly and senators, and maybe we'll tone the rhetoric down a little bit and see if we can discuss this as adults," said Fitzpatrick, a Republican. "We're going to get that information, one way or another. I can assure you of that."

Assemblyman William Nojay, R-Pittsford, Monroe County, said the Moreland Commission's request "comes across as a political exercise more than a legitimate inquiry."

"By all appearances, the Moreland Commission appears to be a front for Andrew Cuomo's political maneuvering to gain leverage against the Legislature," Nojay said. "I think most of my colleagues feel the same way."

JCAMPBELL1@gannett.com

Twitter.com/JonCampbellGAN

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