Commission should stay

Convening the so-called Moreland commission to investigate and prosecute corruption of public officials was one of the better things Andrew Cuomo has done as governor. Shutting it down prematurely is one of the worst.

We suspect it will haunt him for a while. Public trust in politicians is extremely low right now, and abandoning the Moreland commission makes it worse.

When the governor announced the commission last summer, he said its purpose was to root out corruption. Now he says the only reason he did it was to pressure state lawmakers into enacting reforms. Now that they’ve just passed laws to toughen bribery prosecutions and to establish a new campaign finance policing office, he’s calling off the dogs.

That’s like laying off an entire police force because drug-dealing sentences get tougher, or because a neighborhood watch program starts up.

Also, in this case, the neighborhood watch would be the lawmakers policing themselves. That’s an idea only someone inside the state Capitol would love – or one of the many special interests trying to persuade lawmakers.

The public still needs someone to catch the bad guys – a group of people disconnected with the politicians, working to unearth the rot festering in Albany. For a few rare months, we thought we had that, but now the state’s power brokers have yanked it away.

There can be no doubt there’s plenty of corruption to find. Quite a bit has been proven in court. The latest was Assemblyman William Boyland, D-Brooklyn, convicted last month of 21 counts of bribery, mail fraud and extortion. Others may be getting away with the same kind of things and worse. It’s part of the Albany Capitol culture. After all, who puts all that money in politicians’ war chests? Business people, unions and others with proverbial dogs in the fight. Why do they do it? To get favors in return.

Year after year, lawmakers resist reforms to campaign finance laws. New York is among the nation’s most permissive states in terms of campaign donations, with extremely high limits and plenty of loopholes, and they don’t want that to end. Their new laws, for instance, don’t touch them.

The Assembly and Senate power structures are also a problem – especially the Assembly because it doesn’t have a term limit for speaker the way the Senate does for its majority leader.

Andrew Cuomo is far from the first governor to roar in and wield a hammer of reform, and he’s not the first to back off after a few years of dealing with the Legislature, either. But this is a huge backing off.

The Moreland commission, in appearance at least, was real-deal reform, much more so than other recent efforts. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was to deputize commission members, giving them broad authority to investigate any branch of state government. They could refer misconduct cases for prosecution and also recommend changes to laws and ethics rules. The commission made a preliminary report in December that showed some promise. And then nothing.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported that Cuomo interfered with the commission as it tried to investigate some of his allies.

We don’t know what happened, but the public needs to know.

Thankfully, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is on our side. His prosecutors are taking the commission’s remaining files and plan to complete the investigations.

“The bottom line for us is we are prosecutors and care deeply about public corruption,” he said in a radio interview last week.

That’s good. It’s sad, though, that once again, his agency seems to be the only one doing anything about it.