July 29, 2014Zephyr Teachout, a candidate for governor in the Democratic primary and a self-proclaimed "corruption scholar," is calling on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to pick up where the Moreland Commission left off, in what she calls an "extremely important moment in New York state history."
The Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, created under the Moreland Act by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to root out corruption in Albany politics, was born out of Executive Order 106 last July. The executive order clearly states that "if in the course of its inquiry the Commission obtains evidence of a violation of existing laws, such evidence shall promptly be communicated to the Office of the Attorney General and other appropriate law enforcement authorities." The executive order also gave the attorney general the authority to appoint deputy attorneys general and grant them with "the authority to exercise the investigative powers."
By giving the attorney general the ability to appoint deputy attorneys general, the executive order gave the Commission the "broad-based authority to investigate all matters that 'involve public peace, public safety, and public justice,'" according to a press release from the Governor's Office dated July 2, 2013, the day the Commission was created.
Teachout at a press conference in Albany last month.
"New Yorkers want real reform, and expect and deserve the officials they put in office to be working to serve the public interest, not their own," said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in that same press release over a year ago.
Still, there remain unanswered questions regarding the Commission's independence from the Governor's Office.
An excerpt from Teachout's letter to the attorney general includes allegations of what she calls Cuomo's inconsistency regarding the commission's independence. "Although in recent weeks, Mr. Cuomo has argued that the commission was never independent, in several prior news reports about the commission, Mr. Cuomo himself re-affirmed its independence and stated that the co-chairs were responsible for making all decisions."
She continued by emphasizing the important role the attorney general should play in the commission. "Under the general principles of government, a governor may not interfere with an independent investigation by the Attorney General once it has begun. As some legal experts have already publicly noted, interference with deputized attorneys general use of subpoenas may be illegal."
Just last week, the New York Times published a detailed article exposing supposed unethical activity within the commission, including interference by Cuomo's top aide Larry Schwartz. "What public good was served by Schwartz's involvement?" Teachout asked.
Teachout pointed out that, while "disbanded" by Cuomo, the Moreland Commission has not yet been technically dissolved and could still be reconvened. "The important news is that this commission still exists. There has been no executive order suspending the commission," Teachout said.
During a teleconference Monday afternoon, Teachout and lieutenant governor candidate Tim Wu emphasized Schneiderman's "extraordinary position" to regain public trust and his obligation to follow through with the investigations started by the Moreland Commission. Teachout expressed her optimism that Schneiderman is up to the job, "He has a terrific history of showing great courage."
Wu asked reporters to imagine the same situation happening at the federal level. "There would be calls for the president to resign," he said. Wu was unimpressed by the Legislature's response to the New York Times article. "We have barely heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly on this." He likened Gov. Cuomo's attitude toward the Moreland Commission to a famous Nixon quote: "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal."
The current situation, according to Teachout, is evidence of "the dangers of too much power held by a governor and the extreme importance of the attorney general."
Schneiderman's Republican challenger, John Cahill, held a press conference Monday afternoon on the steps of the Robert Abrams Building for Law and Justice in Albany. "There doesn't seem to be an attorney general in the state," said Cahill as he greeted the crowd.
Cahill, who believes Schneiderman is most responsible for the activities within the Commission, was dismayed by his silence over the last several days. "We haven't heard a peep from the attorney general," he said.
"There has been a 13-page report from the governor, but not three words from the attorney general." Cahill called the Moreland Commission controversy a disgraceful "fiasco that can only be found in Albany politics" and asked whether Schneiderman was "being a patsy" or just plain "clueless?" He added, "As far as we know, all he did was take a vacation for twelve months."
"Albany corruption would make Boss Tweed blush," Teachout said.