Andrew Cuomo’s Do-Gooders Done Wrong

The New York state governor’s disbanding of an anti-corruption commission was shocking—and his straight-out-of-Nixon justification even more so.

Andrew Cuomo, meet Louis XIV, France’s Sun King. As tradition has it the Bourbon monarch, who ruled from the mid-1600s until 1715, quipped “L’État, c’est moi,” which translates “I am the State.” Fast-forward three centuries, and Cuomo II sounds awfully like the long-dead Louis.

When confronted with pushback over his decision in March to disband an anti-corruption commission—the so-called Moreland Commission—which Cuomo himself appointed in 2013, the governor was defiant. He bellowed to Crain’s: “It’s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow...It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.” For history buffs, the commission itself takes its name from a 1907 law that empowers New York’s governors to appoint investigative bodies to root out wrongdoing.

Cuomo may now be learning that executive arrogance comes with a price. Immediately after the governor’s self-aggrandizing pronouncement, Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, expressed his dismay with Cuomo, particularly given the state’s corruption-rich environment. So there’s no doubt, the Empire State is among the most corrupt in America. Between 1976 and 2010, New York led America in federal public corruption convictions with more than 2,500.

The March disbanding of the commission didn’t generate much outrage. But then last week, The New York Times dropped a bombshell story on how Team Cuomo rigged the game, and how this latest Moreland Commission was never about being independent. Rather, it was about beating the legislature into submission.

The governor himself was effectively off-limits. Among other things, the paper reported that Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s “hand of the-king”—to borrow from the Game of Thrones—blocked a commission-issued subpoena because it was aimed at a company called Buying Time, which literally bought ad time for Cuomo’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Sadly, Cuomo—who is also a former prosecutor and a New York State Attorney General—appears to be following in the footsteps, if not the socks, of his immediate predecessors. Like Eliot Spitzer, another prosecutor-turned-attorney general-turned governor. And like David Paterson, another indulged child of another New York political powerhouse, Basil Paterson. Cuomo has apparently convinced himself that because he is of the blood, he can do no wrong.

To be sure, Bonnie Prince Andrew’s latest antics are nothing new. After Mario Cuomo became governor, the then-28-year-old dauphin parlayed his father’s luck into a Park Avenue law firm partnership. As the late William Safire wrote for the Times in 1986, Cuomo “delights in the occasion of political sin.”

Good things come to those who wait, or at least to those who have dads in the right place. At the time, young Andrew only had a winning campaign and a stint in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office under his belt, not the stuff that a Manhattan real estate mogul like Donald Trump or a now-defunct investment bank like Bear Stearns would usually pay big bucks for—but they did.

When asked about his son’s profiteering, Mario grew paternally myopic: “In a world filled with yuppies, Andrew Mark has worked hard in government. To suggest that he isn't being hired for that, but just to get influence—why, that’s an outrageous, unfounded conclusion.”

Outrageous and unfounded? It seems like young Cuomo was blazing a path for Chelsea Clinton, another scion of privilege and power, whose pay grade has outpaced her achievements.

Eventually, Cuomo entered the Clinton administration, and as HUD secretary sowed the seeds of the subprime mortgage catastrophe. Indeed, Cuomo’s legacy at HUD actually merited special mention from a federal judge for his role in the market meltdown and the Great Recession.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, a Clinton appointee, summed up Cuomo’s accomplishments this way: “In the year 2000 ... Andrew Cuomo increased to 50 percent the percentage of low-income mortgages that the government-sponsored entities known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were required to purchase, helping to create the conditions that resulted in over half of all mortgages being subprime at the time the housing market began to collapse in 2007.” One might wonder if Mario thinks that Judge Rakoff, too, had reached an “outrageous, unfounded conclusion” about his son.

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These days, the air is rife with talk of an investigation into Cuomo’s defenestration of the Moreland Commission. All this, of course, is ironic given how his Cuomo Sr. castigated the Reagan administration for its ethical lapses.

At a Gridiron Club Dinner held in the run-up to the 1988 presidential election, Mario took the administration to task for its supposed integrity deficit. Cuomo told the crowd that the Republicans had learned the wrong lesson from FDR. Instead of packing the courts with judges, it had packed the courthouses with defendants. Cuomo added that when Republicans talked about bringing “back the old values, I never dreamed they meant Watergate.”

It looks like Andrew wasn’t listening, at least not to his father. Instead, the younger Cuomo’s justifications for letting the latest Moreland Commission die, quoted above in the second paragraph, could have been written by Richard Nixon himself. In sacking Archibald Cox, the Watergate Special Prosecutor on October 20, 1973, the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon justified the firing on the grounds that because he had appointed Cox, Nixon was legally authorized to fire Cox. As Nixon said, “When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”

This month, Bharara’s office subpoenaed the records of a Cuomo ally who served on the commission’s staff. Then last Thursday, Bharara announced that his office will pick up the defunct commission’s investigations where they were left off. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Bharara said, “So we asked for and received...all the documents that have been collected by the commission so the work could continue, because if other people aren’t going to do it, then we’re going to do it.”

Bharara should be respected and feared by the governor. As a prosecutor, Bharara has an impressive record of successfully prosecuting both insider-trading and public integrity cases; just ask Raj Rajatatnam, the founder of the Galleon Group, a hedge fund, who was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy and securities fraud, or former New York State Senator Pedro Espada Jr., a Bronx Democrat, convicted in 2012 of embezzlement. On top of it all, Bharara was the chief counsel to New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer. In other words, Bharara packs some heavy heat of his own.

Cuomo dreams of the presidency, but at the moment he is not the president and it’s now looking like he may never get there. Like his father, Andrew may simply be doomed to reelection—until he isn’t.