NY gov wants new anti-corruption enforcement unit

Michael Gormley, Associated Press
Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a powerful new enforcement unit Tuesday to crack down on campaign abuses and corruption, but a related proposal to publicly finance campaigns appears to be faltering.

Cuomo said he wants an enforcer with subpoena power to investigate schemes like trying to buy elections, which a federal prosecutor this month said are widespread in Albany. Currently, there are no investigators assigned to campaign finance cases and the Board of Elections is usually gridlocked by commissioners who evenly split among Democrats and Republicans.

"The Board of Elections has been a toothless tiger for a long time," Cuomo said. "This will take us down the road to really fundamentally changing the system."

Cuomo could confer that power immediately on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. But Cuomo says he wants what he believes would be viewed by Republicans as a more independent investigator, whom Cuomo would appoint, though Schneiderman could be a fallback. The choice would be subject to Senate confirmation.

As attorney general and as a candidate for governor in 2010, Cuomo had sought to secure authority for the attorney general to investigate election law violations. Schneiderman, also a Democrat, supports that, too.

"There must be a comprehensive approach to fighting public corruption," said Schneiderman spokesman Damien LaVera. "We look forward to reviewing all proposals that restore the people's faith in the integrity of our state government — including those advancing public financing of campaigns and stronger enforcement of public officers and election laws."

Cuomo said New York needs public financing of campaigns, but appeared willing to accept a package of reforms such as lower donation limits and better enforcement without a voluntary system of public financing for campaigns.

Senate Republicans have long been critical of the measure strongly supported by Democrats in the Legislature and proposed again Tuesday by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Cuomo refused Tuesday to say directly whether he would abandon his campaign promise, but neither did he insist it be included in any reform package.

"If those proposals do not become law, I will say to you, 'I wish that those proposals had become law,'" Cuomo said. "It's always the way. There are always laws I wished were passed that aren't passed," Cuomo said.

Silver pushed Tuesday for a phased-in system of voluntary public financing of campaigns paid for by optional tax return checkoffs and a slice of proceeds from fraud recoveries in securities cases. It would provide a 6-to-1 match of public funds to private contributions up to $250 per private donation. Silver estimated the cost at $25 million to $40 million.

"It's money well spent," Silver said. "For the health of our democracy, we need to level the playing field ... to lessen the influence of big money."

The Senate's traditional Democratic leader, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, Sen. Jeff Klein, sponsor similar proposals.

Meanwhile, a liberal national group is trying to pressure Cuomo on the issue by targeting presidential primary voters.

CREDO Action based in San Francisco is telling ardent Democrats that Cuomo isn't pushing the issue hard enough.

CREDO says Cuomo is "stepping back rather than stepping up" on the issue. The group sends messages to 3 million progressive Democrats nationwide who vote in presidential primaries and are often involved in campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts. Cuomo's supporters say he may run for president in 2016.

Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif, however, posted comments on Twitter on Tuesday that continue to oppose the bills. A bill can only get to a floor vote in the Senate with approval by Republican leader Dean Skelos.

Reif said Republicans estimate the cost of public financing at $220 million, at a time when schools need greater funding and taxes need to be cut. He also said public financing, because of the 6-to-1 match, has also been subject to corruption where it's been in place in New York City.