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When Andrew Cuomo was elected governor of New York in 2010, he promised to root out corruption in the New York state government. He began belatedly to act on that promise in 2013 when he set up the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. The commission quickly set about investigating corruption and government malfeasance. In one year, they had discovered evidence of potentially criminal actions by as many as 12 state lawmakers. The commission made a number of criminal referrals to federal prosecutors.
The commission’s efforts were brought to an abrupt end in March 2014, leaving many investigations unresolved. Since then it has been revealed that members of the Cuomo administration sought to influence the direction of the independent commission. This has resulted in a federal investigation into the fate of the Moreland Commission and whether Cuomo or his people acted unethically toward their own ethics commission.
Cuomo insists that his office did not put any pressure on the commission and only offered advice. However, it appears that members of his staff did indeed seek to influence the commission’s decisions. Cuomo has tried to spin the commission’s refusal to succumb to his grubby behavior as “demonstrable proof of independence.”
To add a degree of surreal comedy to the proceedings, prosecutors are also now investigating whether the Cuomo administration put pressure on former members of the Moreland Commission to issue statements that the Cuomo administration did not pressure or interfere with the commission’s investigations. Let’s get this straight then: Federal prosecutors are investigating corrupt actions by the Cuomo administration toward the corruption commission the Cuomo administration set up, as well as pressure from the Cuomo administration toward former commissioners to say that they had not been pressured. Only in New York!
Cuomo’s opponents have tried to make hay with these accusations of corruption. The likely Republican challenger for the governor’s office, Rob Astorino, has certainly tried to leverage the situation in his favor. Astorino’s spokesperson has said, “To have a sitting governor being investigated by federal prosecutors for corrupting an anti-corruption commission has certainly changed the dynamic of the race.”
Yet despite Astorino’s claims, and the growing smell of sleaze, Cuomo will likely not pay an electoral price, at least in the short term. New York’s voting public remains largely unaware of, or apathetic about, the scandal. It is fairly easy to understand public apathy when their governor shows the same level of corruption they come to expect in all their leaders. Cuomo may have been hoist with his own petard, but he continues to be the frontrunner for another term as governor. He has incumbency and advantages in organization and money that his primary and general election challengers will have a tough time to overcome.
But while he may not pay a price at the ballot box, he may pay a legal one. A federal investigation is no laughing matter, and Cuomo’s administration could be hampered by subpoenas and even criminal prosecutions. That would certainly be a dramatic fate to an administration that swept into office promising to overhaul the venal and corrupt nature of New York politics. If anything, Cuomo has succeeded only in reinforcing the perception that politicians consider themselves above the law and only pursue corruption investigations when they will damage their enemies.
Cuomo may face some longer-term political consequences. Just as Chris Christie’s 2016 hopes were dented by Bridgegate, so too will an ongoing federal investigation into corruption likely scupper any hopes Cuomo might have had for making a dash for the White House. The utter shamelessness of Cuomo’s behavior may be just too much for even the jaded American public to stomach.