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Cynthia Nixon not the first to call for a Moreland commission on corruption

When Democratic candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon called for a state Moreland Act Commission to investigate government corruption Tuesday, she was not the first to do so.

Her opponent, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, requested and created a Moreland Commission several years ago to look at potential illegal activities in state government, but he disbanded it as part of a budget deal several months later.

Nixon said if she’s elected governor, she’ll appoint a commission, using powers under the state’s Moreland Act, to investigate state government for corruption. Nixon said she’s reacting to a report in the Albany Times Union that raised questions about a health care company, Crystal Run.

The company received more than $25 million in state grants after contributing money to Cuomo’s campaign. According to the newspaper, top officials of Crystal Run and their relatives gave $400,000 to Cuomo's campaign, the bulk of it in $25,000 donations at a 2013 fundraiser. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan is investigating.

Blair Horner, with the government reform organization New York Public Interest Research Group, said if the commission were truly independent, it would be a good idea, after the corruption convictions of former legislative leaders and a former top aide to Cuomo.

“It’s pretty clear that all of the state ethics watchdogs are not really meeting their role,” said Horner, who added there’s been an “unbelievable” series of scandals in the Legislature and governor’s office in recent years.

“If it weren’t for the feds, we’d know nothing about the vast majority of them,” he said.

The last Moreland Commission was created by Cuomo in July 2013. Cuomo, who was annoyed with the Senate and Assembly leaders for failing to agree to ethics and campaign finance reforms, vowed to fully investigate any potential illegalities.

“Your mission is to put a system in place that says: A) we’re going to punish the wrongdoers,” Cuomo said on July 2, 2013. “And to the extent that people have violated the public trust, they will be punished.”

But the commission, which included several district attorneys from around the state, never finished its work.

An investigation by the New York Times found the governor and his staff were accused of meddling in the commission’s work and ordering commissioners to pull back from investigations that might lead to the governor or any of his associates. By that fall, Cuomo said he no longer believed that the commission should investigate anything within his own executive branch, but should stick to looking at the Legislature.

By late March 2014, Cuomo had agreed to end the commission’s probes in exchange for a budget deal that included some ethics reforms.

Cuomo at the time said he was satisfied with the agreement.

“I said consistently that if they passed that law, we would end Moreland,” Cuomo said in early April 2014. “And we have.”

In that 2014 deal, lawmakers agreed to create an independent enforcement officer at the state Board of Elections. In April of this year, the board took steps to rein in the independent investigator and now requires her to check with them before starting any probes.

The Moreland Commission had begun numerous investigations, and they turned the cases over to Preet Bharara — then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — after Bharara requested the records. The Moreland probes helped lead to the corruption convictions of both of the legislative leaders who were in power in 2013, and the conviction of the governor’s former closest aide, Joe Percoco, on bribery charges.

Horner said it doesn’t have to be up to Nixon to begin a probe of potential corruption in government. He said the current governor, or anyone else running for governor, including GOP candidate Marc Molinaro, could do it, too.

“If it’s Governor-elect Nixon, or Governor Cuomo, or Governor Molinaro — whoever the heck the next governor is — it would be a good way to have a clean break with the past,” Horner said. “In terms of all of the problems we’ve seen with the legislative and executive branches.”

A spokeswoman for Cuomo’s campaign, Abbey Fashouer, did not directly answer questions about Nixon’s proposal, but pointed to a reaction on Twitter from Lis Smith, an aide to Cuomo’s campaign. Smith called it “more political attacks” and said the commission should investigate why Nixon released just one year’s worth of tax returns instead of 10.

Bharara endorsed Nixon’s idea, also on Twitter: “The first Moreland Commission never should have been disbanded and every New Yorker should support a strong anti-corruption measure like this.”

Bharara, who was fired by President Donald Trump and now has a podcast, has not ruled out running for attorney general this year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.