Tuesday, July 19, 2016

NY BOE Enforcement Counsel Must be Truly Independent

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo named one of his top aides to the new position of Enforcement Counsel for the State Board of Elections (BoE), the questioned was if the arrangement would provide the independence a watchdog would need. Two years later, some are still struggling with the notion.

The position, described as an Independent unit within the Board’s operation, was created at the time of Mr. Cuomo’s premature shutdown of the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. He launched the panel in 2013, but pulled the plug before it could issue a final report.

Skepticism continued after it was revealed that Risa Sugarman, the Governor’s appointee to the Counsel post, had copied one of his spokesmen on her internal communications with members of the BoE. Ms. Sugarman, a former prosecutor, had been serving as a Deputy Commissioner in Mr. Cuomo’s administration and had long ties to the Governor.

Since then, however, Ms. Sugarman and her three investigators have made some progress, including extracting settlements from candidates accused of violating campaign finance laws, the sort of violations long ignored by the BoE. Last month’s indictment of a prominent western New York political operative, accused of illicitly exchanging gifts with a State Supreme Court justice, stemmed from a referral by Ms. Sugarman, according to State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Despite some modest success, a recent flare-up in the aftermath of the unit’s probe of aides to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, relating to 2014 State Senate races, shows the Board still doesn’t get it. In April, Ms. Sugarman quietly referred the case to State and Federal prosecutors. After the referral was revealed by the Daily News, suspicion fell on Ms. Sugarman as the source of that leak. But a State Inspector General’s probe traced it to the BoEs’ own Republican spokesman. Attempting to blame Ms. Sugarman was a grossly partisan act, typical of the way the Board has operated for years.

During a Board discussion last week about the leak and ways to tighten confidentiality, Greg Peterson, a Republican Commissioner, demonstrated again the Board’s partisanship and dysfunctionality. He lashed out at Ms. Sugarman, accusing her of not being “part of this team.” To which we say: It’s about time.

The premature dissolution of the Moreland Commission prevented it from completing its job. Now, unless the BoE recognizes that Ms. Sugarman must be truly independent, she, too, will be unable to do her job. Her unit must be free to go after violations of the law, especially campaign finance abuses, the root of much of New York’s political corruption.

The independent counsel office isn’t there to be part of any team. It’s there to enforce election laws, the kind of work that a Board controlled by the two major Political Parties has refused to do for years.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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