ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo established a powerful investigative body Tuesday to examine public corruption, including potential wrongdoing by legislators in campaign fundraising, in an attempt to address what’s seen as a widespread problem in New York government.
Cuomo, announcing the panel at the Capitol, was joined by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who said he’ll deputize the commission members. That gives them broad authority to investigate any branch of state government and refer misconduct cases for prosecution. They will also recommend changes in the law and ethics rules, he said.
Cuomo announced his intention two weeks ago after abandoning efforts to get reforms through the legislature. That followed federal bribery and embezzlement charges filed against several state lawmakers this year. Similar commissions ordered by governors over decades have resulted in lengthy corruption probes and arrests.
“They’ll follow the money and go where the commission determines to go,” Cuomo said. It’s no legislative witch hunt, he said, noting the federal cases show there are real problems, but adding that he expects the investigation to vindicate 99 percent of elected officials who are good people.
The committee was established by executive order under both New York’s anti-corruption Moreland Act and the state’s Executive Law. It has subpoena power and will investigate the influence of campaign contributions on state government and compliance with election and lobbying laws. Its preliminary report is due by Dec. 1, with a final report expected by the end of next year.
“The corruption that now is perceived by the public to be rampant in state government undermines the ability of every part of the state government to function. It has to be addressed comprehensively,” Schneiderman said. “In New York state, we have a voting system that sometimes seems to be set up to make it as hard for people to vote as possible. We have an election law and regulations and enforcement of election law and regulations that sometimes seems like a welcome wagon for pay-to-play schemes.”
The commission is chaired by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Syracuse District Attorney William Fitzpatrick and attorney Milton Williams. Most of its other 22 members are attorneys and prosecutors, including several republicans. State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters are special advisers.
Fitzpatrick questioned news reports that some legislators expressed surprise Cuomo was establishing a commission. “What is the magic number that it takes for people to say, ‘Wow, there’s a problem here’? The number’s about 35 right now — people indicted, under investigation, sentenced to prison.”
Meetings would start immediately Tuesday to put together a strategy and staff would soon start examining documents, said commission executive director Regina Calcaterra, who also directed Cuomo’s special commission that investigated the Long Island Power Authority’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
They include campaign finance reports at the Board of Elections and financial disclosures filed by legislators and other elected officials.
Michael Whyland, spokesman for the Assembly’s majority Democratic Conference, said Tuesday that campaign finance reform has been among that chamber’s top priorities and passed there many times, including this year.
“We look forward to working with the commission to develop and advance comprehensive policy recommendations so we can finally have a system in place that reduces the influence of money in our elections,” he said.
Members of the commission include:
• William Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County district attorney, co-chair
• Seymour James Jr., The Legal Aid Society in New York City
• Joanne Mahoney, Onondaga County executive
• Makau Mutua, dean of SUNY Buffalo Law School
• Frank Sedita III, Erie County district attorney