Cuomo cleared in corruption panel shutdown

(AP) -- An investigation has found insufficient evidence that Gov. Andrew Cuomo committed a federal crime through his handling of a commission he created to root out corruption in state government, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Monday.

The Democratic governor appointed the Moreland Commission, consisting mostly of prosecutors, in July 2013 to investigate public corruption by state officials for 18 months, but he closed it after nine months following agreement with state legislators to enact some ethics measures. Cuomo's decision to disband the commission was criticized, and reports suggested his administration meddled with its work.

Bharara took over the commission's files and, using some of that material, recently convicted two top Albany legislators, former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, of peddling their influence for personal gain.

"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," Bharara said. His office is still following other Moreland inquiries underway when it closed, he said.

Attorney Elkan Abramowitz, representing the governor's office, thanked Bharara for clarifying the public record. "We were always confident there was no illegality here," he said.

For Cuomo, set to deliver his State of the State address Wednesday, the statement from Bharara removes not only the possibility of prosecution but also resolves lingering questions that had threatened to undermine Cuomo's administration.

"Certainly, going into Wednesday's address, this is a big weight lifted from the governor," said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist from Baruch College. "I think the U.S. attorney understood that the lingering questions might have done serious and irreparable harm to the governor."

Blair Horner, legislative director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, said despite any finding of criminal wrongdoing, he continues to believe Cuomo was wrong to shut down the panel. "It was a huge mistake on the governor's part to create a commission, say it's going to be independent, and then unceremoniously pull the plug on it as part of a budget deal," he said.

Horner said Bharara's statement removes a huge distraction for Cuomo's administration. "It blows away some of the smoke that's enveloped the Capitol," he said.

The commission's chief public product, an interim report in December 2013, identified what it called "eyebrow-raising patterns of potential misconduct" based partly on analysis of the money flow to elected officials from campaign contributors with interests in legislative outcomes.

The report identified conflicts of interest, shadowy corporate affiliates, personal spending from campaign funds and outsize donations to political party campaign housekeeping accounts.

Cuomo, responding to reports that his administration pressured the commission to not issue subpoenas to groups linked to him, told Crain's New York that he couldn't interfere with a commission that was controlled by him.

Talking to reporters three months after that, he said his administration had offered suggestions the commission didn't heed.

"That's not a sign of interference," Cuomo said. "That is demonstrable proof of independence."

One of the commission's former chairs, Onondaga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick, had disputed the idea that Cuomo interfered with the panel's work. On Monday, he said he was "gratified" that the commission's files have helped Bharara's investigations into government corruption.

"The only thing I ever expected was a thorough review by Mr. Bharara," he said in a statement emailed to reporters. "I applaud his ongoing success in eradicating the stain of public corruption in Albany."

One of Cuomo's toughest critics wasn't satisfied with Bharara's statement seemingly clearing Cuomo. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican who lost to Cuomo in the 2014 governor's race, repeated his call Monday for Cuomo to call an independent prosecutor to examine whether Cuomo's handling of the commission violated state law.

"The fact that insufficient evidence of federal crimes was available to indict Mr. Cuomo of obstruction of justice is not the same as finding him innocent," Astorino said. "The likelihood that state laws were broken was always the greater possibility."

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