Southern District U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara testifies before the Moreland Commission at a hearing on Sept. 17, 2013 at Pace University. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
ALBANY – U.S. prosecutors are taking the remaining files of New York’s anti-corruption commission as the panel shuts down, and they plan to complete the state investigations, Southern District U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Thursday.
Bharara’s Manhattan office will move aggressively to complete the Moreland commission’s “important and unfinished work” investigating New York political corruption, he said. In a letter to commissioners Wednesday, he called the closing “premature,” but noted that they have agreed to provide him the “investigative files and all relevant materials.”
“The bottom line for us is we are prosecutors and care deeply about public corruption,” Bharara said. “We just want to get our hands on the files.”
In a radio interview Thursday, Bharara declined to say whether his investigation will extend to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in light of a New York Times report that some top Cuomo aides meddled in the work of the supposedly independent commission, created by the governor. Bharara told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he and his investigators will go wherever the facts lead.
In his letter to the two-dozen commissioners, many of them county prosecutors, Bharara indicated his investigation will be broad. “We ask that you too preserve all documents that may be under your control relating in any way to the work of the Moreland Commission, including materials received from third parties, work product and electronic communications,” he wrote.
The Times cited a commissioner, unnamed because of concerns about antagonizing Cuomo, saying the governor’s office criticized issuing certain subpoenas for information. In one case, Cuomo’s office persuaded the panel to delay a subpoena to the Real Estate Board of New York whose leaders have donated to his political campaigns, according to the newspaper report.
The governor’s office did not immediately reply to requests for comment on that report Thursday.
But the commission chairmen—Milton Williams Jr. of Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard and Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick—on Thursday sent a letter to Bharara stating that the commission has “agreed to provide your office with copies of all documents in the commission’s control relating to the commission’s ongoing investigative work. We are very pleased that your office will continue the valuable work that the commission started.”
Cuomo established the investigations panel last year and decided to close it two weeks ago.
“It was a temporary commission. I was not establishing a permanent bureaucracy,” Cuomo told reporters in suburban Rochester on Thursday. “We needed laws changed, and that’s what Moreland was about.”
Its mission included reviewing the adequacy of state laws against official misconduct, campaign finance oversight, compliance with lobbying laws and adequacy of enforcement. Its formation last July came after federal bribery and embezzlement charges were filed against several state lawmakers.
Cuomo has said he established the commission after the Legislature failed to pass reform legislation, and decided to shut it down because new anti-corruption laws were passed. The laws include provisions against bribery, a new enforcement unit at the state Board of Elections and requirements including spending and contributor reports from groups issuing public communications for or against candidates or ballot propositions.
Bharara said it was established last year with “a lot of fanfare” and a public impression of active an ongoing investigations, some of which would result in criminal charges. Then it seemed to be “unceremoniously” shut down, raising questions among thinking people.
The demise of the commission will also apparently bring to an end an attempt by the panel to obtain from lawyer-legislators detailed information on their clients (NYLJ, April 3).
Several law firms had challenged the subpoenas and a quash motion is pending before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger. However, the matter has been adjourned until late this month. Observers anticipate that by that point, Cuomo will have officially disbanded the commission, making the subpoena issue moot.
@|John Caher contributed to this story.