There is a reason that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has graced the pages of the Global Anticorruption Blog so many times in recent months (see here, here, here, and here): life just isn’t easy for a candidate who campaigns on promises to clean up politics only to drown in allegations once in office. Today I offer another installment in our (entirely unofficial) series on the trials and tribulations of New York’s Governor: “Designed to Fail: Andrew Cuomo’s Interactive Guide to Building an Independent Anticorruption Prosecutor. (Parts Sold Separately).”
Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, was arrested last week on federal corruption charges, sending shock waves through New York’s political circles. He is accused of accepting millions of dollars in disguised bribes for more than a decade. Silver allegedly asked developers with business before the state to spend money on a law firm that, in turn, paid Silver for legal work he never did. He was able to disguise the source of the income for so long because New York, like the vast majority of other states, considers its legislature to be “part time,” freeing up legislators to maintain legitimate outside jobs, as well as their government work.
Such outside payments are ripe for unscrupulous dealings (or, at very least, the appearance of impropriety), and have long been decried by anticorruption forces. Outside payments were a primary focus of Governor Cuomo’s anticorruption Moreland Commission, which the Governor then disbanded under pressure from legislators. Governor Cuomo recently proposed a new commission to look at ways to increase disclosure of outside income and to cap the amount of outside income legislators may receive. While Cuomo’s new proposals would be a good start, they do not go far enough. The time has come to ban outside legal work for state legislators and to compensate them fairly for the full time job the people elected them to do.
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.