When I joined the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption ("the Moreland Commission") as special counsel during the summer of 2013, I knew Albany's history of corruption, and relished the opportunity to investigate it and offer ideas for reform. Like many of those who participated in or followed our work, I found hotbeds of scandal, apathy and mediocrity beyond even my low expectations. The person who disappointed me most during my time on the Commission was Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The opportunity that has been lost by the Commission's neutering, then disbandment, is more significant than most people realize, and the level of the governor's interference more pervasive than press accounts suggest. And while ethics may seem like a single issue in a large and complicated state, what I observed showed me what little regard Governor Cuomo and his senior staff have for the press, the public, and people with integrity who work in government. Their disdain for ethics colors the way they govern the entire state.
Let me begin by describing my experience on the Commission in as much detail as I feel is appropriate during U.S. Attorney's Bharara's ongoing investigation. The Executive Order under which the Commission operated directed us to investigate corrupt activity that was permissible under the New York's weak campaign finance and lobbying laws, not necessarily uncover crimes. (This being Albany, the Commission could not help but discover potentially illegal activity along the way.) While U.S. Attorney Bharara is in possession of the Commission's files, he is unlikely to pursue non-criminal investigations, which comprised much of our work.
The Department of Justice, New York Attorney General and various District Attorneys will keep pursuing outright crimes such as bribery, but legislators convicted of such offenses are often small fish, while significant players savvily operate at the outer edges of legal corruption. This includes state legislative leaders and other power brokers, such as prominent lobbyists, who thrive under "politics as usual." As we noted in the Commission's Preliminary Report, issued in December 2013 (a second report was never published), "the real scandal is what remains legal."
You can view the report here: http://publiccorruption.moreland.ny.gov/...
No one abuses this system like Andrew Cuomo, who used a questionably legal vehicle, the Committee to Save New York, to spend millions on behalf in 2011 and 2012 before quietly shutting it down.
See this report on CSNY: http://public-accountability.org/...
For example, to most lay people, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a candidate through various loopholes and accounts in exchange for favorable legislation or lack of regulation, as Governor Cuomo did, is tantamount to bribery. This is how the real estate, telecommunications and gaming industries have operated for years. Legislative leaders rake in huge legal fees for unspecified work. Large corporations bankroll dozens of bi-partisan lobbying firms. Anonymous political spending by both parties continues to grow. As the Daily News reported, Cuomo donors have been awarded lucrative state contracts. (http://www.nydailynews.com/...) Of course, as long as no campaign finance or lobbying laws are broken, all of this is legal,and Governor Cuomo has left the worst and weakest of these laws in place year after year.
Further feeding Albany's corruption is that most who operate in this system don't find it problematic or care. Few legislators defended our work, and few beat reporters investigated its substance until the Commission was long disbanded. Even good government groups withheld their fire during the budget process under the illusion that a strong reform bill was forthcoming. Sometimes it seems like the entire political class lives in perpetual fear of an Andrew Cuomo reprisal.
Even Bill de Blasio, who spent the first half of 2014 in Cuomo's doghouse, is now trotted out to sing the praises of right-winger Kathy Hochul on the governor's behalf. Governor Cuomo's general approach to governance is that fundraising nearly exclusively from mega donors, strong-arming independent entities and bullying Democrats to get in line with his moderate-conservatism is a necessary part of "politics as usual," and his strongest defense is that the other power brokers of Albany feel the same way. Weak-kneed politicians can perhaps live under this system, but primary voters ought to reject it.
Governor Cuomo's behavior during the Commission is emblematic of this cynical approach to governance. During the life and aftermath of the Commission, Governor Cuomo repeatedly made comments and pressured Commissioners to make comments that Commission staff knew to be blatantly untrue. The Commission staff did not realize that Governor Cuomo viewed them as chips in a misplayed poker hand, a gambit to be discarded via press conference. Only after being browbeaten for months did we acknowledge the farce of investigating any target that could even tangentially set off Cuomo or his senior staff. I learned of the Commission's shutdown over Twitter, two days before the budget was due. By then the Commission was a shell of itself anyway.
Without someone challenging this Albany mindset, it is no wonder most New Yorkers are completely cynical and disengaged from their state government. Indeed, if Zephyr Teachout's campaign has achieved nothing else, it has shown that someone with political courage can stand up to any elected official, criticize him and offer a better vision, without suffering retaliation. That is what democracy is.
Fortunately, the recent Moreland Commission revelations coming to light for a broader New York audience, coupled with the perfect storm of a federal investigation and gubernatorial election, has put the issue of corruption in an unusual spotlight.
The problem of "legal corruption" has been one of Zephyr Teachout's main campaign themes. I was recruited for the Commission because of my academic background in campaign finance reform, which is also how I first met Teachout in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. She and I also worked together on the legal team for Occupy Wall Street, making me one of the few people to have worked in the same orbit as both primary opponents.
When this campaign began, everyone knew that Zephyr Teachout was smart, wonky, and internet-savvy. What I certainly did not know is her remarkable ability to connect with people, her passion for education issues, and her total unflappability in response to Andrew Cuomo's usual set of bullying tactics. I think that Zephyr Teachout can win on Tuesday, and Andrew Cuomo think so too, otherwise he wouldn't be sending his political cronies after her days before the primary.
Corruption isn't Zephyr Teachout's only issue. Recent revelations that Cuomo actively worked to submarine a Democratic State Senate (http://www.capitalnewyork.com/...), which insiders all suspected anyway, show Cuomo's utter distaste for progressive legislation, and should single-handedly be reason enough to vote against him in a primary. One colleague who knows Cuomo far better than I do has remarked that the governor has hardly any core convictions, and after four years of governance, fracktivists and education advocates will surely agree. Will there be any doubt that Zephyr Teachout will fight for a Democratic State Senate and pursue a progressive legislative agenda?
When voting on September 9th, Democratic primary voters will have a choice between two competing visions of democracy, corruption and progressivism. It would be great vindication to Commissioners and Commission staff denied the opportunity to finish their corruption investigations if voters could deliver the mandate for reform that the Commission's work could not be. That's why this former special counsel to the Commission is voting Zephyr Teachout for Governor on September 9th.
For more information, go to http://www.teachoutwu.com, or just plug in directly to the GOTV operation at 220 East 23rd street, suite 707. If you live outside of New York City, let me know and I'll put you in touch with a local organizer.
P.S. I'll also be voting for netroots pioneer Tim Wu over anti-immigrant, NRA-backed, anti-Obamacare conservative Kathy Hochul for Lieutenant Governor.