Bharara ends probe into meddling and closure of Moreland Commission with no charges for Cuomo

Fortunate Son

Andrew Cuomo survives a year of Preet Bharara's ominous "Stay Tuned"

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) at the 2015 State of the State address.  Source :  New York State Governor's Office/Official Photograph/Flickr

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) at the 2015 State of the State address.  Source :  New York State Governor's Office/Official Photograph/Flickr

By LOUIS FLORES

The office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the nation’s top Federal prosecutor for New York’s southern district, on Monday made a rare announcement, informing the public that Federal prosecutors were taking no prosecutorial action, for now, after concluding a review of allegations that the Cuomo administration had hobbled the work of the Moreland Commission and, later, tampered with members of the Moreland Commission, who were witnesses to the allegations.

“After a thorough investigation of interference with the operation of the Moreland Commission and its premature closing, this Office has concluded that, absent any additional proof that may develop, there is insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime.  We continue to have active investigations related to substantive inquiries that were being conducted by the Moreland Commission at the time of its closure,” said U.S. Attorney Bharara, in a statement released publicly over the Internet.

The announcement that Federal prosecutors had cleared, for now, the Cuomo administration of Federal crimes related to the interference and abrupt closure, and the duplicitous communications with members, of the Moreland Commission was a rare move by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, because the office has a strict policy of never commenting about investigations. 

For example, during an interview conducted last month, U.S. Attorney Bharara declined to answer questions posed to him by WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer, who had asked the U.S. Attorney if either his office was still investigating the campaign finances of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) or whether it was a crime if Gov. Cuomo had shuttered the Moreland Commission to prevent it from investigating the Committee to Save New York, a Super PAC organization that was funded by big business interests, including gambling interests, to support his political agenda early in his first term as governor.

The press office for Gov. Cuomo did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for comment about U.S. Attorney Bharara’s announcement, but the news that Federal prosecutors had closed their inquiry was met with assured relief by Gov. Cuomo’s legal team.

“We were always confident there was no illegality here, and we appreciate the US Attorney clarifying this for the public record,” said Gov. Cuomo’s personal criminal defense attorney, Elkan Abramowitz, in a statement that reached a few, select set of journalists.

In response to an e-mail request made by Progress Queens for an interview or for further comment, Mr. Abramowitz wrote back, “We have nothing to add beyond the statement we issued.”

The rare public announcement released on Monday included a confirmation that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was still conducting “active investigations related to substantive inquiries” that were begun under the Moreland Commission.  This continuation was made possible after U.S. Attorney Bharara’s office had seized the working files of the Moreland Commission shortly after it was announced that Gov. Cuomo and state legislators had agreed to disband the corruption-fighting panel in late March 2014.

The acknowledgement that Federal prosecutors were still probing investigations that were first begun by the Moreland Commission was a repetition of a declaration made last week, when U.S. Attorney Bharara addressed a session of the Kentucky state legislature, saying, in part, that some of the investigations first begun by the Moreland Commission “continue still” by his office.  That acknowledgement was also a rare form of public disclosure by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

The timing of the announcement served to relieve Gov. Cuomo of scrutiny, given that he is set to deliver his State of the State address on Wednesday, and some media were already lampooning the corruption convictions of former New York State Assemblymember Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) and former New York State Senator Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), two legislative leaders who, along with Gov. Cuomo, have ruled Albany under a de facto power-sharing arrangement referred to derisively as “Three Men In A Room.”  Last year, Gov. Cuomo crudely conceded his membership in this triumvirate in his State of the State address in an “inside joke” he made during his presentation when he referred to the group as “The Three Amigos.”

Besides allegations of the interference with, the premature closure, and the witness tampering of the Moreland Commission, word of other Albany-centered corruption probes have been leaked by the media.  A Federal corruption probe was reportedly commenced after the real estate developer Extell Development Company made $300,000 in campaign contributions to Gov. Cuomo in the time when Gov. Cuomo signed into law a provision that granted Extell Development approximately $35 million in property tax abatements for its $2 billion luxury condominium tower, One57.  More recently, almost simultaneous and possibly overlapping probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal prosecutors have been investigating potential campaign corruption of Buffalo officials and a signature economic development program created by Gov. Cuomo, referred to as the Buffalo Billion.

The potential corruption probes involving Gov. Cuomo have been complicated by political considerations.  As reported by Fredric Dicker of The New York Post, there was a time when Gov. Cuomo was highlighting his close working relationship with Vice President Joe Biden in a possible effort to thwart any U.S. Department of Justice corruption probes into the Cuomo administration.  Under guidelines applicable to U.S. Attorneys, Federal prosecutors must seek approval from Justice Department officials before U.S. Attorneys may seek indictments against significant political figures.  Given that senior Justice Department officials may sometimes be influenced by political implications that may affect the White House, prosecuting Gov. Cuomo for possible corruption might have had political repercussions for the White House via Vice President Biden.  Under conditions where politics may deter probes of significant public officials, Monday’s rare public announcement could be cynically viewed as a corollary of that preferential treatment.

"Stay tuned"

Social media reaction to U.S. Attorney Bharara’s statement evolved from disbelief to cautious optimism and, for some, the range of reactions included anger.  For months, U.S. Attorney Bharara had been telling voters to “stay tuned,” and voters interpreted that instruction to mean that his office was committed to fearlessly prosecuting Albany corruption at its source, which many interpreted to mean Gov. Cuomo himself. Monday’s announcement therefore was experienced as a betrayal of that hope and promise.

Some government reform activists noted the precision in the wording of U.S. Attorney Bharara’s statement, particularly with reference to the possibility that proof may yet develop to support the filing of Federal criminal charges and the possibility that, if not Federal criminal charges, then the door was being left open to state criminal charges that could be brought as an alternative.

During the December interview with Mr. Lehrer, U.S. Attorney Bharara cautioned Mr. Lehrer against “reading anything into what I’m saying one way or the other.” U.S. Attorney Bharara said he was aware that there were people in the public, who tried to interpret his public statements for clues as to what actions could be possibly next taken by his office.

For years, many grassroots government reform activists have complained that no local or state prosecutors have exerted the necessary independence to launch investigations of significant political and campaign corruption.  Across the political landscape, government reform activists have identified examples of corruption cases that were never prosecuted – from allegations of bid-rigging of the racino at the Aqueduct Racetrack to the billing irregularities at the over-budget and behind-schedule 911 emergency call ECTP program of New York City to financial irregularities at politically-connected nonprofit groups.

Some of these corruption scandals have involved former members of the Cuomo administration, like Lawrence Schwartz, who played a significant role in the Aqueduct Racetrack bidding process and in communications with the Moreland Commission.  Mr. Schwartz was also a central figure in the process that led to the closure of Off-Track Betting parlors in New York City, a decision that would later improve the worth and value of gambling sites that the Cuomo administration would later license and award to groups, like Genting, which would, in turn, become a major contributor to the Committee to Save New York, in a circuitously flow of value and cash that would bear political and economic benefits to Gov. Cuomo.

In the lead-up to the filing of Federal corruption charges against former Assemblymember Silver, the Cuomo administration experienced a mass exodus of senior administration officials.  The most recent senior administration official to step down is Joseph Percoco, Gov. Cuomo’s enforcer, who was implicated in efforts to tamper with Moreland Commission witnesses.

The fall-out from the seemingly endless corruption scandals have disillusioned New York state voters.  Voters keep proposing solutions, like eliminating outside income for state legislators, imposing term limits for public officials, or banning lobbyists from serving as campaign donors and campaign consultants.  However, such proposals are met dead on arrival up in Albany, where elected officials are known not to vote for reform legislation that diminishes their financial interests.  For example, Gov. Cuomo improbably announced last year that he would continue to accept campaign contributions from Glenwood Management, a real estate developer at the heart of the corruption trials against former Assemblymember Silver and former State Senator Skelos. 

In the face of such cynicism, voter participation in recent elections continues to drop precipitously, and a recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed that a sum of 70 per cent. of poll respondents stated that U.S. Attorney Bharara had not gone far enough or was doing just about right in his investigation of corruption in New York State government.  A majority of respondents, 56 per cent., stated that they believed that elected officials were unable to end government corruption and needed to be voted out of office so that "new officials can start with a clean slate."

In prior comments, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has said that the solution to end political and campaign corruption was not exclusively going to come from prosecutors, adding that elected officials, the media, and the public each had a role to play to end corruption in government.  In a forthcoming series of reports, Progress Queens will examine how Federal law enforcement officials, including the offices of U.S. Attorneys, have acted to restrict the role of the public, particularly activists, from participating in government, including in government reform efforts.