New York's Cuomo defends handling of corruption panel, says administration didn't interfere

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday defended his handling of an anti-corruption commission, dismissing reports that his administration interfered with its work.

The Democrat said that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption he created last year and dismantled this spring made its own decisions and that his office only offered suggestions — which were later rejected by the commission.

"The commission took advice and opinion from many, many people," Cuomo told reporters following an economic development announcement in Buffalo. He said the commission showed its independence when it balked at his administration's suggestions.

"That's not a sign of interference," he said. "That is demonstrable proof of independence."

The New York Times reported last month that a top Cuomo aide, Larry Schwartz, pressured the commission to drop subpoenas to entities connected to the governor.

Members of the commission said Monday that they would not have permitted meddling by the governor's office.

One commissioner — Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita — said members of the panel discussed resigning when they heard Cuomo's office tried to block commission subpoenas. Cuomo's office later backed off, he said.

"We would not stand for any interference, and discussed a number of options, including resignation," Sedita said in a statement. "The governor's office ... agreed not to interfere with our work."

One of the commission's three chairs, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, said Monday that he would have resigned if Cuomo's administration had sought to direct its work.

"The bottom line is that nobody 'interfered' with me or my co-chairs," Fitzpatrick said in a statement.

The Times reported that Schwartz had initially urged the commission not to issue subpoenas to a media-buying firm Cuomo used and to the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members financially supported the governor's campaign.

The newspaper also reported that the commission was urged to steer clear of the Committee to Save New York, a lobbying group of CEOs and business groups that amassed some $17 million in donations from unidentified individuals who supported the governor early in his term with TV ads.

The allegations come at a sensitive time for Cuomo, who hopes to win a second term by wide margins this November and who is widely believed to have presidential ambitions. His primary opponent — Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout — and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino have criticized Cuomo's handling of the commission.

Cuomo appointed the commission last year to investigate corruption — and in particular pay-to-play campaign finance schemes. The panel was dominated by county district attorneys and was given subpoena power.

Cuomo said the commission accomplished its purpose because it prompted new laws to toughen bribery prosecutions and led to the creation of a new campaign finance oversight office. He said prosecutors can still pursue cases prompted by the commission's work.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan is now reviewing the commission's files. He has called the disbanding of the commission premature but said that federal prosecutors will aggressively complete its "important and unfinished" work.


Klepper reported from Albany.