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NY corruption panel has more teeth, will it bite?

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The new corruption commission pursuing misconduct in New York government has more teeth than its predecessor two decades ago, but skeptics say the test is whether it recycles rhetoric against persistent Albany corruption or actually bites anyone.

The 25-member commission appointed last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo has 10 county district attorneys. Unlike a previous Moreland Commission, this panel is deputized as deputy assistant attorneys general with clear authority to investigate state legislators.

Top staff members come from Cuomo’s and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s staffs, with a longtime federal prosecutor as chief investigator of the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.

Like the 1987-90 Moreland Commission, the group is charged with uncovering misdeeds and conflicts and recommending ethics law and oversight. They have authority to subpoena documents and compel testimony. A preliminary report is due Dec. 1, the final report 13 months later. They are to “promptly” report to the attorney general or prosecutors any evidence of crimes, according to Cuomo’s executive order.

“The first order of business is the enforcement function,” Cuomo said making the announcement.

Critics say local prosecutors and the standing state ethics panel already have authority to investigate lobbying violations and prosecute crimes, but the recent criminal cases against state legislators have all come from federal prosecutors.

David Grandeau, New York’s former lobbying enforcer, questioned whether this new temporary group will be any more effective than the state Commission on Public Integrity established with both ethics and lobbying oversight in 2007 under then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and its successor, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, that took over under Cuomo, both with some fanfare. They collectively have had dozens of commissioners with sterling resumes and reputations, he said.

Grandeau compared the commissions to the Peanuts character Charlie Brown — always having the football pulled away at the last minute.

“It’s one ethics reform after another,” he said.

The Green Party, whose agenda includes environmental and social activism, said it’s doubtful this commission will do much to prosecute elected officials, calling it a bully pulpit for Cuomo to talk about ethics and campaign finance reform in the Legislature but not get anything done.

Cuomo said he fell back on appointing a commission, whose mandate includes investigating campaign finance enforcement at the Board of Elections, after efforts failed to get campaign finance reform through the Legislature. He said the new mandatory public disclosures of state officials’ outside financial interests by JCOPE, combined with this new Moreland Commission, create a powerful combination.

“It turns out Gov. Cuomo is much more flexible than he wanted anybody to know,” said ex-Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, noting the cooperation here between Cuomo’s office and Schneiderman’s. The key commission powers come from the referral to the attorney general, he said.

Commission chief counsel is Kelly Donovan, in charge of Schneiderman’s criminal division since November. John Amodeo from the attorney general’s senior staff is the commission’s legislative director.

The commission’s chief of investigations, Danya Perry, was an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan for 11 years and deputy chief of the criminal division when she left in April.

“I think it’s great news to have someone like her in a position like that where there’s such an obvious need for investigating,” said Neil Barofsky, who tried cases with Perry and was later inspector general of the federal bailout program for troubled financial institutions. “She has all the ability and all the talent to do the job she’s being asked to do. A lot of that depends on what the resource allocation is, how much support it has.”

Commission Executive Director Regina Calcaterra, a former corporate attorney, directed Cuomo’s special commission that investigated the Long Island Power Authority’s response to Hurricane Sandy with a report forwarded recently to federal prosecutors. She ran for state Senate on Long Island in 2010 but was kicked off the ballot by a judge when her opponent challenged her eligibility as a resident.

Calcaterra said the staff will be expanding and work from offices in New York City and Albany. She declined to discuss details and said internal commission deliberations are confidential.

Cuomo said the commission will have whatever funding it deems necessary — a significant problem for the last Moreland Commission.

John Feerick, who headed the special seven-member Commission on Government Integrity established by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1987, wrote in 1990 that the Legislature funded it but specified no money could be used to investigate its management or affairs. The commission, whose main mission was fact-finding, negotiated the ability to examine legislative party committees and revealed “the enormous sums of money” given by corporations, political committees and individuals, he wrote.

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