Governor’s Loyalists Cannot Credibly Enforce State Campaign Finance and Ethics Laws

April 29, 2016

Seth Agata, recently appointed the head of the state ethics enforcement agency, JCOPE, is Governor Cuomo’s former top lawyer. Prior to his appointment heading JCOPE, Mr. Agata represented the governor before JCOPE. Risa Sugarman, the enforcement counsel for the NYS Board of Elections has a long history as aide to the governor and is widely perceived as being one of his loyalists. Their relationship to Governor Cuomo colors everything they do, and their enforcement actions will always be undercut by suspicions that they are politically motivated—especially high profile investigations of the governor’s political foes—like the one targeting Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Sports fans would think it was completely crazy—utterly unacceptable—to use referees employed by the home team. Their calls would always be in doubt, no matter their integrity and tough-mindedness. This is why the league, not the home team, employs the refs. Similarly, it does not matter how professional and competent Agata and Sugarman are, they are seen as the governor’s people. There is nothing wrong with being loyal to a political leader you admire. But that relationship means you are inherently not independent or impartial. New York State needs independent ethics enforcers authorities so their enforcement actions are seen as fair and impartial.

Unfortunately, Risa Sugarman’s perceived closeness to Governor Cuomo has cast a big shadow over the State BOE’s first high-profile enforcement action in years. What could or should be something that watchdog groups applaud has instead turned into a drama straight out of House of Cards.

Earlier this week, someone leaked to the press a high stakes criminal referral from Sugarman to Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Sugarman’s referral documents extensive efforts by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election campaign to route large contributions through Democratic Party County Committees to Democrats running for the state senate in a handful of contested seats upstate. Sugarman says the whole scheme was designed to avoid limits on campaign contributions. Team de Blasio, says it is all legal and even customary. We do not have the expertise to sort through the extremely arcane rules in question, but we have big questions about the timing and impartiality of the investigation.

Sugarman’s ties to Cuomo raise these questions:

  1. Why isn’t Joe Percoco, the Governor’s top political aide, named in Sugarman’s criminal referral? Has he been subpoenaed by prosecutors? According to Politico, Percoco was sent email updates and a memo explaining Team de Blasio’s scheme as it unfolded in 2014. At the time, Percoco ran the State Democratic Party Campaign Committee for Governor Cuomo, and was central to the flow of Democratic fundraising dollars in New York. What was his role, if any, in routing contributions to candidates for the State Senate? Does the Governor’s office have any connection whatsoever to this investigation? Anything at all?
  2. Who leaked the criminal referral to the NY Daily News? De Blasio’s lawyer claims it was Sugarman; was it?
  3. Is this investigation motivated by a much bigger political game in which Governor Cuomo encouraged/spurred/initiated Sugarman’s investigation to achieve a number of goals: (a) torpedo the efforts of democrats to regain the state senate by scaring off potential big democratic donors (it is widely reported that the governor prefers working with a GOP controlled senate); (b) distract the press from Albany’s complete failure to pass meaningful ethics reforms; (c) hurt his political foe, Mayor de Blasio.

If the State BOE’s enforcement counsel was someone with no ties to Cuomo or other state political leaders, these questions would not even occur to us, but by her inserting her in that role, the governor has invited questions and undermined an investigation that may have great merit—or may not.