As a reaction to widespread corruption in New York state government, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Scheiderman appointed the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption in July of last year. The members of the Commission were deputy attorneys general with broad powers to investigate violations of bribery, campaign finance, lobbying and election laws. Governor Cuomo disbanded the Moreland Commission last March, purportedly as part of a bargain to pass stricter anticorruption laws made in a larger budget deal. Two weeks later, the federal government stepped in, in a very public way. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, opened an investigation into Cuomo’s decision to prematurely shut down the Commission and openly questioned Cuomo’s justification for the decision. Last week, the New York Times reported that subpoenas may have been served on the Commission’s former counsel, possibly to root out evidence of interference by the governor’s office in the workings of the Commission.
The federal investigation raises an important question: how involved should federal prosecutors be in corruption at the state and local level? Cuomo’s defensive response to Bharara’s announcement suggests that Cuomo believes involvement in this case is undesirable. However, any umbrage-taking on the part of the governor would be misplaced. For two reasons, Bharara’s intervention stands out as a uniquely well-founded and legitimate example of the increasingly commonplace practice of federal prosecution of state and local corruption.