How Corrupt Are Our Politics?

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Lauren Lancaster
Zephyr Teachout, the author of Corruption in America, who is running against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary, testifying in court during his unsuccessful attempt to have her removed from the ballot, Brooklyn, August 7, 2014

1.

When New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo was elected in 2010, he promised to restore integrity to state government. Two and half years later, as several state legislators were indicted for bribes, and perhaps just as importantly, as Cuomo’s reelection loomed, he did what many politicians do when faced with a vexing problem: he appointed a commission. In July 2013, with much fanfare, Cuomo announced the creation of the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which came to be known as the Moreland Commission. He promised that it would be independent. As he put it at the time, “Anything they want to look at, they can look at—me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.” And he featured the commission in his reelection ads, proclaiming that “trust is everything.”

Less than one year later, Governor Cuomo prematurely shut down the commission, claiming that he’d been able to persuade the legislature to adopt new ethics rules in exchange for doing so. But many questioned the decision. The new laws were actually quite tepid. And reports emerged that the governor’s office had consistently interfered with the commission’s work, leaning on it not to pursue investigations of the governor’s allies and supporters. The New York Times published a damning account, based on a three-month investigation, finding that the governor’s office and its agents had “deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”1

The US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, is now investigating whether the governor or others violated federal laws by obstructing corruption investigations. Cuomo’s response has been to strong-arm former commission members into issuing public statements supporting him that contradict their own earlier complaints, and simultaneously to assert that since the commission was a creation of the executive branch, any obstacles he may have put in its path cannot possibly constitute interference. So much for independence.

In light of these problems, it is perhaps not surprising that Cuomo appears more threatened than he should be by a challenge in the primary for governor from Zephyr Teachout, an obscure law professor from Fordham Law School. Teachout has less than $200,000 in her campaign coffers as compared to Cuomo’s $32 million. Cuomo sued to bar Teachout from running for governor on the ground that she had not resided for the requisite five years in New York State, even though she has been employed at Fordham Law School and had an apartment in New York since June 2009. A trial court found Teachout eligible to…


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