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Board of Elections votes to curtail some of its chief investigator's powers

Tempers flared Wednesday at the New York State Board of Elections, where commissioners voted to limit the subpoena powers of the investigator in charge of enforcing campaign finance violations.

The investigator, Risa Sugarman, said it’s a case of blatant “political interference,” while board commissioners accused Sugarman of being secretive and playing the “victim.”

The commissioners voted 3-to-1 to require Sugarman and her investigations unit to first seek permission from the board before issuing subpoenas in the course of her probes of potential campaign law violations by candidates for office.

Recipients of any subpoenas approved by the board would be granted an appeals process to quash the subpoenas.

Sugarman accused the commissioners of meddling in her investigations solely for political purposes.

“By your vote today, you will send a message loud and clear,” said Sugarman, who added that a yes vote constitutes “interference” in her work for “partisan” purposes. She accused the commissioners of trying to stop probes when it “suits your political partisan purposes.”

Sugarman’s job was created as part of a reform package agreed to by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature after Cuomo shuttered the Moreland Act Commission on corruption in 2014.

Sugarman, who previously worked for Cuomo, conducted probes into campaign accounts of Republicans in the state Senate, as well as a group of former breakaway Democrats in the Senate known as the Independent Democratic Conference. Sugarman recently ordered the IDC to return $1.4 million in campaign contributions, saying they illegally gamed the campaign finance system. The ruling could hamper the senators’ re-election efforts.

The state’s attorney general, Barbara Underwood, condemned the election commissioners’ vote, saying in a statement that “gutting the enforcement counsel’s authority and independence will only serve to encourage more corruption in New York.”

While the commissioners were deliberating, Cuomo urged them to reconsider, saying in a statement that the changes are “unnecessary and ?could harm the operations and the independence of the enforcement counsel's office.”

Only Cuomo’s direct appointee on the board, Andy Spano, voted against the changes, saying it was inappropriate to make the changes during a heated campaign season.

“I have a problem with the way tomorrow’s newspapers are going to play this,” Spano said.

The three commissioners who voted in favor of the changes said Sugarman is secretive and that she selectively picks probes that attract the most media attention.

Commissioner Douglas Kellner, a Democrat, shaking his finger for emphasis, said the process is “completely broken.”

“This effort to make out like the enforcement counsel is a victim of the commissioners’ intrusion,” Kellner said, “is completely oblivious to the statutory language.”

Commissioner Gregory Peterson, a Republican, said the checks and balances that are supposed to be part of the new system “have gone awry.”

“We do not have a Star Chamber proceeding,” Peterson said. “We should not have things decided behind closed doors.”

The commissioners accused Sugarman of neglecting other aspects of her job, such as going after campaign committees that fail to file timely reports with the Board of Elections. Kellner said 2,074 committees did not file the correct papers for the January 2018 filings, and Sugarman has “not taken formal action” in any of those cases.

“Not one,” Kellner said.

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, said the commissioners have a legitimate point that the chief enforcement officer has not done enough to go after the non-filers as well as other potential violations of the campaign rules.

But she said those are separate issues from limiting Sugarman’s investigative procedures.

“The kind of detail that this newly adopted rule requires is an invitation for partisan gamesmanship,” Lerner said.

Lerner said the larger problem with the Board of Elections is its makeup – the major political parties each choose two commissioners. She said other states have taken the partisanship out of their election boards, and have avoided some of New York’s problems.

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.