ALBANY -- On a sunny spring morning in 2010, gubernatorial candidate Andrew M. Cuomo stood beside the New York City courthouse named for the notoriously corrupt Boss Tweed and shouted a promise: "Job one is going to be: Clean up Albany and make government work for the people!"
Four years later, corruption in state government remains an issue in the governor's race and the subject of the most biting campaign ads by Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino. Astorino says Cuomo is "under federal investigation for corruption" -- a reference to the controversy over the governor's decision to disband the Moreland Commission on public corruption. Cuomo called Astorino "corrupt" after Astorino declined to detail his consulting work with broadcasters over the past several years.
Statewide polls show 8 in 10 New Yorkers think corruption is a serious problem in Albany, although only 1 in 6 said it would be the determining factor in their vote.
"The question remains huge," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, noting that the issue is critical to the functioning of government and a major concern to New Yorkers.
Over those four years, federal prosecutors added a half-dozen lawmakers to Albany's run of corruption cases that targeted 30 politicians over the last decade. They include former Senate Democratic majority leaders Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis), who awaits a federal trial next year on charges of bribery and wire fraud, and John Sampson (D-Brooklyn), who is charged with embezzlement, obstruction of justice and making false statements to FBI agents.
Ethics packages proposed
As these cases mounted in the legislature, along with probes of lower-level state workers in the executive branch, Cuomo twice took action.
In 2011, the legislature passed what Cuomo called his historic Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011, which included creation of the independent Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE.
JCOPE adopted new guidelines and regulations for disclosures by lobbyists and training state employees in ethics. It also brought ethics cases against several state workers, although not against any top leaders. The panel was criticized for its decision that allowed the state's one-time biggest lobbyist, the Committee to Save New York, to keep its early contributors secret as the group paid for millions of dollars in TV ads promoting Cuomo's initiatives.
Cuomo acted again as federal prosecutors went on another run of investigations of legislators. He proposed public financing of campaigns and further disclosures by lawmakers of their outside income, among other measures.
The legislature, however, rejected Cuomo's second ethics package in 2013. So he impaneled, as he had threatened, the Moreland Commission on public corruption to investigate the campaign donations and spending of lawmakers and to propose reforms.
U.S. attorney steps in
The commission soon battled press leaks claiming that Cuomo's staffers were directing investigations and subpoenas away from the governor's political allies. In March, Cuomo closed the commission as part of a legislative deal for more ethics measures, which require lawmakers to provide more details on campaign finances, outside employment and other measures.
That drew the attention of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan, who said he would continue the commission's investigations and questioned Cuomo's shutdown of the panel.
"If you begin investigations and you begin them with great fanfare," Bharara said in an April radio interview, "you don't, I think, unceremoniously take them off the table without causing questions to be asked."
A New York Times article in July said Cuomo's office "hobbled corruption investigations." Cuomo denied meddling in the commission he created in 2013 as "an independent commission that will investigate whatever they believe needs to be investigated." In July, he called it a success: "We needed laws changed and that's what Moreland was about." Some commission members issued public statements defending Cuomo's role.
"Moreland was a mistake," said Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, noting that Cuomo's involvement in the commission gave ammunition to his critics, including Astorino.
"Andrew Cuomo purported to be a white knight galloping into Albany to save New York from corruption, but he turned out to be a Trojan horse with an insatiable appetite for money and power, leaving New Yorkers burned again," said Astorino, the Westchester County executive.
TV ads and campaign statements for Cuomo have also called Astorino corrupt, citing, among other things, his $30,000-a-year consulting job for radio stations, the hiring of friends and relatives to county jobs and his refusal to make public his personal income tax returns further back than last year's return.
Cuomo stands on his record of taking on corruption. He said he has required more disclosure of campaign finances and more data on the holdings and private-sector income of lawmakers. Cuomo said he led the enactment of new anti-bribery laws, the creation of a new and independent enforcement unit in the Board of Elections, and greater disclosure by independent expenditure political action committees.
Cuomo "fought successfully for landmark ethics reforms that have changed how state government operates -- including enhanced disclosure of state officials' outside income and stronger enforcement of ethics laws," Cuomo campaign spokesman Matt Wing said.
"There is still more work to do, which is why the governor will continue to fight for public financing of elections, overhauling the campaign finance system and increasing voter participation," Wing said.
How will voters react?
Last week, Cuomo called the Moreland issue "a political dispute" and said he created the commission to force the legislature to accept his new reforms and he achieved passage of 85 percent of his package.
This month, Cuomo said he wouldn't talk about Bharara's probe into the Moreland Commission's cases and Bharara's public criticism of the way the commission was closed.
"You should ask the U.S. attorney those questions," Cuomo said. "I don't want to comment on what the U.S. attorney is doing or not doing. . . . I said we are cooperating in any way we can. And you should ask him."
Astorino said he would combat corruption by seeking term limits of eight years for legislators and statewide officials. He also proposes to create what he would call the Independent State Commission on Public Ethics, to replace Cuomo's JCOPE. Judges would appoint commissioners under Astorino's plan; they are now appointed by the governor and the legislature. He would also end "per diem" payments to lawmakers for working in Albany or elsewhere on state business and replace them with travel vouchers that would require receipts for spending.
Susan Lerner of Common Cause, who has supported Cuomo initiatives in the past, said corruption is a key issue in the race because of the Moreland experience. "It is a continuing problem facing the state government that the Moreland Commission was beginning to address before it was disbanded," Lerner said.
The Moreland controversy, however, has not resonated with voters. Statewide polls have found that two-thirds of voters say they were not familiar with the issue.
"It's fair to say that more citizens now than in the past would say that corruption is unacceptable, but that does not mean that citizens will be motivated to do anything about it unless it impacts them directly," said Jennifer G. Rodgers, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School.
"Voters essentially shrugged over Governor Cuomo's disbanding of the Moreland Commission, but seemed more incensed by the staff of [New Jersey] Governor Christie closing the George Washington [Bridge] and causing epic traffic delays," she said.
Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Research Institute poll said that even though New Yorkers believe corruption is an important issue, only 1 in 6 likely voters says it will be the determining factor in their vote.
Pocketbook issues -- taxes, jobs, wages -- remain the primary motivation for voters in the governor's race, he said.
"If it's a toss-up between two candidates on economic issues, then maybe corruption plays into their thought process," Greenberg said. "But voters clearly think that Albany is riddled with corruption."