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Cuomo's biggest test is corruption probe handling

Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino speaks during a news conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Albany, N.Y.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino speaks during a news conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Albany, N.Y.

— Allegations that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration meddled with his own state anti-corruption commission are posing the greatest political test of his tenure — and highlighting his skill at high-wire verbal gymnastics.

Still, with polls showing Cuomo far ahead of his Republican challenger and a campaign bank account of $35 million, observers say the questions dogging the governor are unlikely to affect his chances of re-election or his national ambitions.

Responding to reports that his administration pressured the commission not to issue subpoenas to groups linked to him, Cuomo said there was no interference. Not because his administration stayed out of it, however, but because its requests went unheeded.

"It's clear the governor said things that don't coexist easily," said Richard Brodsky, a former state lawmaker who ran for attorney general in 2010. "There will be a political price to pay. His opponents will and should raise the issue. We will see if he can persuade the voters that what he said and what he did were appropriate."

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was created by Cuomo last year to root out corruption. Cuomo abruptly disbanded the commission this spring after lawmakers passed a series of ethics reforms he sought.

The New York Times reported last week that a top Cuomo aide, Larry Schwartz, pressured the commission to drop subpoenas to entities connected to the governor, including a media-buying firm used by Cuomo and the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members had financially supported the governor's campaign.

A year ago, in announcing the panel, Cuomo said it would be "an independent commission that is free to investigate whatever they believe needs to be investigated."

On Monday, Cuomo insisted there was no interference, noting the commission had balked at Schwartz's attempt to veto the subpoenas. In April, he used different logic during an interview with Crain's New York to dismiss an earlier accusation that he had meddled with the commission.

"It's my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it," he told the publication. "So, interference? It's my commission. I can't 'interfere' with it because it is mine. It is controlled by me."

Cuomo's serpentine reasoning has fueled criticism from his election opponents — and commentators like Comedy Central's Jon Stewart — but it's unclear whether it will eat into his huge lead over his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.

"I think this confirms the underlying skepticism and cynicism that some people have about politics," said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY New Paltz. "But unless something changes, I don't see the outcome of the election being affected. The margins maybe, but not the outcome."

Astorino said contributions to his campaign picked up after the allegations. On Tuesday, he called for a state investigation into Cuomo's handling of the commission, which he said had prompted him to look up the definition of the word "interfere."

"He tried to interfere — but because it didn't work, it wasn't interference?" Astorino said.

Four members of the 25-person commission are backing Cuomo's assertion. One, Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita, said some members of the panel discussed resigning when they heard Cuomo's office had tried to block the subpoenas. Cuomo's office later backed off, he said.

Cuomo changed the subject Tuesday, announcing $250 million for clean energy projects, a business expansion in Canton and the completion of a senior-housing project in Manhattan. He is also considering a visit to Israel to show support during its conflict in Gaza. Such a visit would likely attract significant media attention and give Cuomo a chance to put the questions about the commission behind him.

One critic may be harder to shake. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the dissolution of the commission was "premature." He collected the panel's files and said federal prosecutors would continue its "important and unfinished" work.

 
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