The Scandal Commission’s Swan Song is a Hit

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, December 19, 1986

The irony of the Sovern Commission on municipal corruption is that in its nine months of well-intended by genteel existence, it never disturbed the public’s slumber or apathy until the day it shut down, which was yesterday.

It was then that this commission — bowing to the prodding of the Village Voice and Daily News and to the complaints of several of its own members that they had labored without effect — as its final act called on Gov. Mario Cuomo to appoint an investigative panel with real eyes, nose and teeth to poke into unethical conduct by public officials and their private cronies.

The commission, named for and headed by Michael Sovern, president of Columbia university, had been set up by the governor and Mayor Ed Koch in March as a response to the New York City corruption scandal that had boiled over in January and still shows no signs of cooling down.

With no subpoena power, a meager budget and a mandate not to investigate but only to recommend ways to prevent civic corruption, the Sovern group issued a series of reports calling for reforms in campaign financing, ethics rules, selection of judges, protection of whistle-blowers and the city’s procedures for awarding contracts.

Its work inspired no general outcry in support of reform, perhaps because the recommendations had largely been heard before but also, one guesses, because the commission spoke in flat, generic terms — linking none of its proposals to the actual officials, events and transgressions that were the reason for its existence.

Had Sovern and others on the panel chosen to be less polite, they might have connected up the dots of their recommendations to the headlines in the morning newspapers and in that way given some flesh and impetus to their call for changes in the conflict-of-interest laws.

Even then, it is not likely that the Republicans who control the State Senate would have enacted the changes. They have historically played an obstructionist role on such matters, arguing that the corruption resides entirely in New York City and therefore does not require any alteration in statewide statutes.

The Senate Republicans must surely have also taken note of the cautious manner in which the Sovern Commission had been created. It was not truly an independent body; two of its 16 members were aides of the governor and two others were aides of Mayor Koch.

To the outside observer, this suggested a couple of political nuances; one, that Cuomo had done Koch a favor (to be called in later) by letting him join in naming the panel, thus seeming to put the mayor above, rather than amid, the corruption fray; and two, with Koch and Cuomo officials on the commission, there was little chance that its recommendations would get so feisty as to embarrass either man.

But now, these very circumstances of the Sovern Commission’s origin and lack and mandate have led to the result that should have been initiated in the first place. When a number of commission members saw their contributions fading into oblivion, they complained and pushed for the creation of a full-fledged investigative body. The Daily News, in an unusual front-page editorial, and Jack Newfield of the Village Voice, in a long column, also pressed the governor to act.

Thus, in a curious way, if the governor and mayor had indeed sought to limit and box in the Sovern Commission, their purpose had ricocheted back to box them in, instead. Last Sunday, with the pressure building on him, the governor said something he had carefully avoided saying for a full year about the Koch administration scandal. He said the scandal was major and serious.

“The corruption is, no question, widespread,” he said. “It shouldn’t be minimized. As governor, who constitutionally is ultimately in charge of seeing that the law is enforced in this state, I am not going to minimize it, and I haven’t.”

Then, yesterday, the Sovern Commission issued the parting recommendation that its discontented members had lobbied for: The governor, along with the state attorney general, should appoint a prestige panel of five to seven persons to investigate ethics and corruption in the interwoven network of politics and government and private contractors. Crucially, this body would possess what the Sovern group did not — a healthy budget and subpoena power to bring in documents and reluctant witnesses. Public hearings could be televised to get the issue to a wide audience.

It is difficult to imagine the governor turning down or diluting such an unambiguous proposal by his own commission. Among other things, it would stain his national image.

But there are potential pitfalls, nonetheless. Much will depend on how swiftly the panel is formed and goes into motion. A great deal of the groundwork has already been done by the prosecutors who have gained convictions in the ongoing city scandal, and their considerable investigative material is ready to be turned over. Therefore, it need not take a year — contrary to some predictions heard yesterday — before hearings can be held. Five to six months should be more than enough time to prepare for hearings.

Much will also hinge on who gets appointed to the body and how independent they are of the mayor and governor. The choices for chairman and counsel are particularly critical. These decisions by Gov. Cuomo will tell us whether this investigation is going to be polite and contained or full-throated and no-holds-barred. The holds have been barred in the city scandal far too long. 

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