Editorial: Time for an Ethics Deal

Great fanfare and no small expectations greeted Andrew Cuomo’s announcement last July that he had appointed a special panel to investigate public corruption in Albany. The creation of a so-called Moreland Commission—named after a legislator named Sherman Moreland, who authored anti-corruption legislation more than 100 years ago—was hailed as the work of a chief executive determined to get to the root of all that ails Albany.

Well, maybe not.

It has become apparent that the governor’s office is none too pleased with the course the commissioners have followed, especially after they began to look into the ways in which tax incentives are distributed to real estate developers. Mr. Cuomo’s office reportedly had a word or two with the commission, and, as a result, members of the Real Estate Board of New York were not subjected to a planned subpoena.

Some of the board’s leading figures happen to be among Mr. Cuomo’s most prominent supporters. If you’re shocked that a sitting office-holder would seek to protect influential friends, well, you haven’t been paying close attention.

But that’s not the point, really. The problem is that Mr. Cuomo and state lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement on some sort of ethics reform last spring, even after the arrests of dozens of lawmakers and appointed officeholders in recent years. It is fair to wonder how hard legislators tried to cut a deal with Mr. Cuomo, who, it must be said, proposed an aggressive package of reforms.

In response to this stalemate, Mr. Cuomo announced on July 2 that a Moreland Commission consisting of prosecutors, lawyers and academics would “address weaknesses in the state’s public corruption, election and campaign finance laws, generate transparency and accountability, and restore the public trust.” That’s a pretty broad mandate, and good-government types thought that deliverance was at hand.

In a sense, then, Mr. Cuomo was only asking for trouble by choosing the nuclear option of a Moreland Commission. Told to generate transparency and accountability, the commission planned to issue a subpoena to the state Democratic Party, Mr. Cuomo’s party. Oops. Didn’t the state party pay for ads supporting Mr. Cuomo’s agenda? Isn’t the state party a virtual arm of the governor’s upcoming reelection campaign?

Having issued subpoenas to the state Republican and Independence parties, the commission could hardly overlook the Democrats. What to do? In the interests of transparency and accountability, the commission forged ahead by issuing a subpoena to the Democratic Party’s State Senate Campaign Committee, which is not associated with the governor’s campaign machine.

The commission’s co-chair, William Fitzpatrick, insists that the panel retains its needed independence and assertions to the contrary are “categorically false.” Maybe. But the commission’s broad mandate was never a good idea in the first place.

The governor and legislative leaders need to figure out how best to deal with officeholders who are accused of sexual harassment, who abuse the public payroll, who steer contracts to friends and supporters and who simply embarrass themselves and their state. This doesn’t take a commission of experts. It doesn’t take hearings and special investigators. It takes a group of practical politicians, all of whom are up for reelection next year, to come up with common-sense solutions.

The Moreland Commission’s brief was too broad in the first place. It’s time to dial it back, get decision-makers in a room and come up with a deal.

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