Did Cuomo obstruct his own anti-corruption crusade?

Last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that he’d had enough of corruption in the state capital, and launched a high-profile commission to independently find and root it out. When it got to close to Cuomo himself, the New York Times reports today, the governor had a change of heart and shut it down. Now the feds want to take a closer look at both the corruption and Cuomo’s actions in obstructing his own commission (via Jammie Wearing Fool):


The investigators did not realize that the firm, Buying Time, also counted Mr. Cuomo among its clients, having bought the airtime for his campaign when he ran for governor in 2010.

Word that the subpoena had been served quickly reached Mr. Cuomo’s most senior aide,Lawrence S. Schwartz. He called one of the commission’s three co-chairs, William J. Fitzpatrick, the district attorney in Syracuse.

“This is wrong,” Mr. Schwartz said, according to Mr. Fitzpatrick, whose account was corroborated by three other people told about the call at the time. He said the firm worked for the governor, and issued a simple directive:

“Pull it back.”

The subpoena was swiftly withdrawn. The panel’s chief investigator explained why in an email to the two other co-chairs later that afternoon.

“They apparently produced ads for the governor,” she wrote.

If this scenario had played out in a police investigation, that would be criminal obstruction of justice. As it is, the grant of subpoena power to the supposedly independent commission may end up having the same effect. After all, the executive branch is responsible for law enforcement, and the commission was clearly an attempt to work around any other potential conflicts of interest in the executive branch to perform that function. Granting the commission subpoena power would establish that, as opposed to just a fact-finding commission that reports on issues for the governor and whose operations would be clearly political rather than investigative or the enforcement of law.


Cuomo told the NYT that he created the “independent” commission, and therefore he could run it any way he saw fit:

“A commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive,” the statement said. “It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.”

Yet, The Times found that the governor’s office interfered with the commission when it was looking into groups that were politically close to him. In fact, the commission never tried to investigate his administration.

Besides, that conflicts with what Cuomo told the press last year:

Gov. Cuomo said Thursday his special investigative panel on government corruption can investigate whoever it wants — even him.

“Anything they want to look at they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the Controller, any senator, any assemblyman,” Cuomo told reporters during an event in upstate Oneida. “They have total ability to look at whatever they want to look at.” …

“If this doesn’t give people faith and trust, I don’t know what else can,” Cuomo said.

In March, Cuomo quietly shut the panel down, but US Attorney Preet Bharara was not pleased. The cases that prompted the commission’s formation came out of his office, and Bharara had urged the commission to get aggressive. Suddenly, Cuomo’s initiative looked a lot less like a courageous attempt to clean up Albany on his own, and more like a way to pre-empt the US Attorney from doing his job. He seized the files from the commission and assigned investigators to continue the probes that had gotten shut down — and started a new one about Cuomo’s interference with the commission and its subpoenas.


This has other consequences, too. Cuomo, like his father Andrew, reportedly has presidential ambitions and hoped to use his track record as governor of the second-most populous state as a springboard in the future. This kind of obstruction of a corruption probe, even if it doesn’t prove criminal, will almost certainly hobble those ambitions, especially if Bharara files indictments either against Cuomo’s staff or against lawmakers that his commission let off the hook. For now, this removes one potential Democratic alternative to the stumbling Hillary Clinton in 2016, or at least “pull[s] it back” considerably.

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