Moreland Commission Explores Public Corruption but Changes Can Take Place through Legislation

By Assemblyman Will Barclay
Earlier this summer, the Governor, using power granted to him pursuant to the Moreland Act, empaneled a commission to investigate public corruption.

The Moreland Act grants the governor broad powers to investigate the affairs of a government agency.

The act was initially enacted in the early 1900s at the behest of then Governor Charles Evans Hughes who sought the power to investigate the State Insurance Department.

Presumably, the Governor is empanelling the commission as a reaction to the spat of ethical lapses that have plagued various members of both houses of the state legislature over the past few years.

In short, he is carrying out a threat that he made earlier in the year – the threat that he would appoint a commission if the legislature did not pass his proposal to publicly fund campaigns.

While one cannot blame the Governor for reacting to these scandals, one has to wonder if another investigatory body will solve the problem.

I wish the commission success and look forward to seeing their report which, if I understand correctly, is supposed to be issued by the end of the year.  I am, however, skeptical that another government body looking to provide oversight of state government will truly bring about the reform state government needs.

Indeed, in the Assembly, we already have six different governmental entities that are supposed to police activities of Assembly members and those who interact with the legislature (Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, State Board of Elections, Assembly Ethics Committee, Albany County District Attorney and Federal Prosecutors).

Now, with this recently empaneled commission, the Governor and even the Attorney General are getting into the act.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it is.  The Governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, empaneled a similar commission in 1987. That commission was widely known as the Feerick Commission, named after its chairman John Feerick.

That commission, not to anyone’s great surprise, issued a report finding, among other things, that New York State had lax campaign finance laws.

My point in mentioning the Feerick commission and pointing out that we already have numerous entities empowered to investigate members of the legislature and those who seek to influence the legislature (e.g., lobbyist and activist) is that it is not entirely clear what this latest commission appointed by the Governor is going to find that we don’t already know or what it will recommend for legislative action that hasn’t already been proposed.

While we await the new commission’s findings, let’s hope the findings are more substantive than the Governor’s proposal to publically-finance campaigns.  In my mind, such a policy would be disastrous for New York state.  Interestingly, New York City has such a system and that is where much, albeit not all, the recent corruption has come out of.

In the meantime, there is no reason the Legislature cannot pass certain ethics reforms that would strike most people on the street as common sense reforms.  First, let’s increase the penalties for lawmakers who are convicted of criminal activities for the simple reason that such officials have betrayed the public trust and should be held accountable for such.

Moreover, it is outrageous that those elected officials that are convicted of corruption are currently allowed to keep their state pension.

I sponsor legislation that if a state official is convicted of a felony, he or she automatically forfeits their state pension.

Lastly, let’s institute member-item reform, the area from where much of the recent corruption that has sprung.

I propose that we prohibit any appropriation be made when a conflict of interest exists – including appropriations to an organization that employs or compensates the legislator who is providing the member item or a family member or any person sharing a home with such legislator.

In sum, I wish the Governor’s latest commission well and look forward to learning the results of their investigation(s) and whatever recommendations they have to improve the ethical atmosphere in Albany.

There is a lot the state legislature can do now however that does not have to wait the commission’s findings.

Let’s start enacting common sense reforms.

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