Governor's explanation unconvincing
I was on my way to my sister’s wedding in New Hampshire when I learned that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was under fire for meddling with a commission charged with investigating corruption in state government, and the news took me by surprise.
But then my initial shock wore off.
And I began to see the whole thing as inevitable.
Cuomo has a reputation for being controlling, ruthless and relentless, and these traits have served him well. He gets things done. He keeps people in line. He projects confidence and decisiveness.
After the aimless, mostly incompetent governorship of David Paterson, and the fighting and scandal of Eliot Spitzer’s short tenure, his heavy-handed, technocratic style has proven popular. The most recent Siena Research Institute poll showed that the governor has a 37-point lead over Republican challenger Rob Astorino, and that six in 10 New Yorkers say he’s made the state a better place to live.
But there have been some cracks in the armor, as well as troublesome reports of rule-bending and behind-the-scenes machinations. Strong-arming, ruling by fear and cutting backroom deals might be effective tactics, but they can backfire, leading to discord and scandal.
In a 2013 New York magazine profile of Cuomo, titled “The Albany Machiavelli,” reporter Chris Smith praised the governor’s “unmatched political virtuosity,” while observing that “In politics, fear can be a highly useful tool, but it is a risky one. The governor doesn’t have many friends.”
That’s too bad for Cuomo, because right now he could use a few more friends.
Last week, the New York Times printed an exhaustive report detailing Cuomo’s interference in the work of the Moreland Commission — a commission he appointed, with the goal of investigating misconduct among public officials and recommending changes to the state’s election and campaign fundraising laws. When the 25-member panel was announced, the governor said that the group would be given free rein. “Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman,” Cuomo said.
According to the Times, this was anything but the case.
Rather than permit the Moreland Commission to operate independently, the governor and his staff hampered the group’s work almost from the start, interfering whenever the commission turned its attention to groups or people with ties to the governor. The pressure applied by the governor’s aides was so great “that investigators believed a Cuomo appointee was monitoring their communications without their knowledge.”
The Times report is full of disturbing — Machiavellian? — anecdotes, which are supported by emails, documents, interviews and subpoenas.
For instance: When the commission issued a subpoena to a media-buying firm that purchased millions of dollars of advertisements for the state Democratic Party, Cuomo’s senior aide contacted one of the commission’s three co-chairs and ordered him to pull the subpoena, which was quickly withdrawn.
The Moreland Panel was disbanded in the spring by Cuomo, about midway through what was supposed to be an 18-month process. This was suspicious, and raised red flags. The governor’s decision to prematurely pull the plug on the commission suggested that the group was never really as free and independent as the governor had claimed.
His remarks at the time did little to allay such concerns.
“The Moreland Commission was my commission,” he said in April. “It’s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow. So, interference? It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”
This is the sort of mealy-mouthed nonsense that ought to get you kicked out of a high school debating club.
It’s also the sort of mealy-mouthed nonsense you can imagine a modern-day Machiavelli, hungry for power and incapable of backing away from a fight or admitting wrongdoing, offering as an explanation.
It contradicts everything Cuomo said about the commission when he established it, and suggests that the whole thing was a farce — a way to give the appearance of cleaning up Albany while actually doing the opposite.
As a result, things are looking bad for Cuomo right now.
On Monday, New Yorkers were treated to the ridiculous sight of former governor Mario Cuomo defending his son. “Andrew is as honest a politician as we have seen in New York,” the elder Cuomo said. “He’s absolutely as straight as they come and as bright as they come, it seems to me. That’s enough for me.”
Oh, OK — if the governor’s dad says he’s honest, he must be!
The governor has issued a 13-page response to the Times report, but it isn’t particularly convincing, and contains the same sort of mealy-mouthed logic — or lack thereof — that has characterized Cuomo’s previous comments on the Moreland Commission.
It’s possible that, as more facts come to light, my take on the matter will change.
But until that day comes, I will believe the Times’ version of events, not the governor’s.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.