But three months later, according to people familiar with the commission’s work, the effort to investigate corruption in Albany is burdened by resistance from the Legislature, which has refused requests for information about lawmakers’ outside income, and by unexpected involvement by the governor’s office, which has leaned on the commission to limit the scope of its investigations.
Now some of the groups that had cheered the commission’s creation say they fear that the effort to investigate corruption is losing credibility.
“I was feeling very optimistic,” said Karen Scharff, the executive director of Citizen Action of New York, a liberal advocacy group. “And now, it feels like suddenly things are moving in a different direction.”
Common Cause New York, a government watchdog group, on Monday released a strongly worded letter to Mr. Cuomo and the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, expressing concern about “interference and micromanagement” of the commission.
Mr. Cuomo, discomforted by the commission’s work and the tension with the Legislature, appears to be considering an exit strategy. One option said to be under discussion is passing a package of ethics measures that could allow the governor, legislative leaders and the commission to say they had made headway in cleaning up Albany, without a prolonged investigation during next year’s legislative session.
The commission, known as a Moreland Commission and made up, in part, of district attorneys around the state, responded on Monday to increasing questions about its independence by defending its work. It acknowledged that the offices of Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Schneiderman had given “input,” but said it was the commissioners’ “judgment and discretion that governs the commission and determines its action.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, said that while the panel reported to both the governor and the attorney general, “ultimately all investigatory decisions are up to the unanimous decision of the co-chairs.” Mr. Schneiderman’s office had no comment.
The turmoil over the commission began in late August, when it asked members of both houses of the Legislature to release information about their outside income above $20,000. Several weeks later, lawyers for the Legislature refused, saying, “These demands substantially exceed what New York law authorizes.”
The commission’s relationship with the governor’s office has also been freighted. It issued a flurry of subpoenas at the start, but then was slowed by Mr. Cuomo’s office in several instances, according to people familiar with the situation who insisted on anonymity because they feared retribution by the governor.
In one such instance, when the commission began to investigate how a handful of high-end residential developers in New York City won tax breaks from Albany, its staff drafted, and its three co-chairmen approved, a subpoena of the Real Estate Board of New York. But Mr. Cuomo’s office persuaded the commission not to subpoena the board, whose leaders have given generously to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign, and which supported a business coalition, the Committee to Save New York, that ran extensive television advertising promoting his legislative agenda.
Frank Marino, a spokesman for the board, said it was “cooperating with the commission and will continue to do so.”
“Obviously, there’s discussions,” said Mr. Marino, who added that the real estate board had had no conversations with the governor’s office or the commission about subpoenas.
The commission also abandoned a plan to subpoena the State Democratic Party, which spent millions on advertising this year to support Mr. Cuomo. The subpoena was part of an investigation into loosely regulated spending on political advertising; as part of that inquiry, the commission issued subpoenas to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and the State Independence Party.
At a recent meeting, according to a person familiar with the exchange, one of the commission co-chairmen, William J. Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, said that the panel would subpoena the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee rather than the state party; the Senate committee has not been a player in Mr. Cuomo’s campaigns. Mr. Fitzpatrick has said any claim the commission is not independent is “categorically false.”
The commission’s decisions not to issue subpoenas to the real estate board and the state Democratic Party were first reported by The Daily News.
One lawyer familiar with the commission’s work said the governor’s aides were having trouble leaving it to its job.
“You can’t say this is an independent commission when you’re trying to tell people what they can do and what they can’t do,” the lawyer said.
And Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, said, “If the governor stopped certain subpoenas from being sent, it is an outrage.”
“If what was reported is true, that there are people in the governor’s office who have directed the commission not to follow through on subpoenas, that is worthy of its own investigation,” she said.
Mr. Cuomo, who this year could not get the Legislature to approve a package of anticorruption measures, is now hoping to reach a deal with legislative leaders on a similar package, so that next year’s legislative session can focus on other issues.
But even the solutions under discussion are stirring controversy. Because Republicans in the Legislature have been unwilling to approve public matching funds for state campaigns — a measure sought by government reform groups — Mr. Cuomo’s aides are discussing whether to ask legislators to allow voters to create a public financing system by amending the state’s Constitution. But supporters of public financing worry that a referendum would be a tough sell, and would result in an expensive, and perhaps uphill, statewide campaign.
“We know that very wealthy special interests, who are already the main campaign contributors in our state, are on record opposing a fair elections system,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “A ballot referendum is an invitation to these wealthy special interests to dig into their virtually bottomless pockets and flood the airwaves and voters’ mailboxes with propaganda.”