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Cleaning up a toxic spill in the Capitol

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - Updated: 4:08 AM

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, except when it comes to preventing corruption in Albany.

That's what you need to know about the Moreland Commission, that posse of prosecutors Gov. Andrew Cuomo is unleashing to cure abuses that have landed so many legislators in jail.

After talking for several years about preventing the kinds of behavior that results when too much money chases too many votes, the governor increased the pressure as the most recent legislative session came to a close.

Either pass a package of laws to reform the relationship between money and politics -- that would be the approach most similar to prevention -- or he would use one of the powers that a governor has and start investigating just who collected what from whom and for what purpose. That would be the approach more similar to seeking a cure after the body politic has been infected.

Assembly Democrats were fine with letting candidates use more public money to run for office and diminish the role of private contributions, especially from political action committees and businesses. There are those who say that this is more about Democrats getting their hands on more taxpayer money than it is about having clean elections. They have a point.

Senate Republicans are opposed to expanding the use of public money in elections, money that they said would be better used for other purposes. There are those who say that Republicans feel this way because they are afraid of losing the advantage they have with their appeal to wealthy donors. They, too, have a point.

When legislators called his bluff, the governor had no choice. Now, investigations will be launched, press conferences will be held, perps will take walks and trials might eventually land a few careless and greedy legislators in jail with the others who have come before them.

For all of the good that the commission will do in putting more resources into the investigation of real criminal activity, it will fall far short of the alternative, reducing the influence of money in elections.

Because the legislators make the laws, much of what they do is legal even though it should not be. That was the problem that federal prosecutors ran into when they tried to charge Joe Bruno, the powerful leader of the Senate Republican majority, with crimes. It turned out that what most people might consider criminal was legal in New York if you did it a certain way. And Bruno, who was one of three people who decided what went into the laws and what did not, knew how to avoid going over those legal lines.

The Moreland Commission will have a hard time bringing indictments or getting convictions for behavior that betrays a very cozy, but not illegal, relationship between money and legislation. That's something that true campaign finance reform could address.

Until reform gets majority support, fans of good and clean government will have to rely on revenge. Senate Republicans say if the governor is going to investigate them, they will start investigating him. With all those investigations going on, somebody is bound to find something.

-- The Middletown Times Herald-Record


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