Cuomo Faces Probe by Hard-Charging New York AG Seen as Rival for Job
(Bloomberg) -- Letitia James, New York’s hard-charging attorney general, has taken on Donald Trump, the NRA and Facebook Inc. Now she’s going after the state’s most powerful politician, Governor Andrew Cuomo.
James, the first woman elected to the post and the first Black woman to hold statewide office in New York, is leading an investigation into claims that Cuomo sexually harassed two employees and a third woman he met at a wedding. It comes on top of her finding that the state undercounted Covid-19 deaths among its nursing-home residents by as much as 50%.
That report alone, released five weeks ago, created a firestorm around Cuomo, long viewed as invincible. Now the 63-year-old governor’s plans for a fourth term are in jeopardy, and the fortunes of the popular attorney general -- seen as a top contender for his job should she want it -- are ascendant.
Apparent conflicts of interest like that are built into the system in New York, because attorneys general who aspire to run the state have often ended up investigating potential rivals, Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said in an interview. Cuomo himself was the state’s attorney general before being elected governor in 2010.
“If she comes up with a report that says he should be removed from office, and six months later she announces her candidacy, people might say, ‘Oh, really,’” Miringoff said. “But all things being equal, Andrew Cuomo has damaged whatever future he has, which lowers the conflict of interest even if the perceptions might still be there.”
James, who served on New York’s City Council for 10 years and as the city’s elected public advocate for five, hasn’t said whether she’ll run for governor.
The scandals bring into conflict two New York Democrats with national profiles they raised by clashing with the Trump administration. James, 62, delighted liberals by filing dozens of federal lawsuits challenging the former president’s policies and shutting down his charitable foundation for misusing funds. Cuomo became “America’s governor” with straight-talking press conferences on the pandemic that sparked talk of a presidential run.
“This is one of the first times during his governorship where he is not in control,” said Blake Zeff, who has been a spokesman for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. “Something of great importance to his future and his administration is out of his own hands.”
The fraught dynamic between Cuomo and James is new, yet familiar to the governor. As attorney general, he conducted inquiries into two governors, Eliot Spitzer and Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson. Both left office under a cloud.
“Given the blistering nature of the reports Cuomo issued about the governors he investigated, he’s certainly aware of the potential impact that independent investigations can have,” said Zeff, who worked in New York politics for a decade, including in the attorney general’s office under Eric Schneiderman. Zeff isn’t involved in the matter.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Cuomo diverged from his accustomed pugilism by apologizing repeatedly, but also said twice in a row that he “never touched anyone inappropriately.” He said he had no idea his remarks had caused discomfort, and declared he had no intention of resigning.
“I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts from the Attorney General’s report before forming an opinion,” Cuomo said, adding that he was fully cooperating with the inquiry.
Jay Jacobs, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, said it’s unrealistic, and unjust, to expect every elected official accused of wrongdoing to step down immediately.
“We asked for an independent investigation -- that’s what everybody in the Democratic Party was asking for -- and now we’ve gotten one,” Jacobs said. “So it would seem to me that we need to let the investigation come up with the results and then decide what to do based on those results. To jump the gun and prejudge this is unfair, I think, and I don’t know if that’s a very good precedent.”
The governor’s office has hired a prominent criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, Elkan Abramowitz, to defend it in a federal investigation triggered by the nursing home report. Abramowitz, whose past clients include Woody Allen and former Fox News host Ed Henry, isn’t defending Cuomo in the harassment matter, and it’s unclear if the governor has hired an outside lawyer for the probe.
James spokeswoman Delaney Kempner said the harassment claims were “concerning and demand a rigorous review.”
“We are committed to an independent and thorough investigation and will only be guided by the facts,” Kempner said in a text message.
‘Keeping My Head Down’
The appearance of a potential conflict between the attorney general’s oversight of the investigation and her political prospects is likely to make the inquiry even stronger, because James will “bend over backwards to be fair,” said Andrew G. Celli, a lawyer who got to know James when they worked for Spitzer in the attorney general’s office two decades ago, and who keeps in touch with her. Celli ran the civil rights division, James the Brooklyn regional office. He described her as “fiercely independent” and willing to challenge the Democratic establishment.
“I’m just keeping my head down and doing my work, and we’ll see what the future holds,” she said in a recent interview.
The harassment investigation will weigh allegations by former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett, who says the governor asked her about her sex life, and Lindsey Boylan, who was a top economic development official in the administration. Boylan says Cuomo gave her an unsolicited kiss in his office and invited her to play strip poker while on a government plane, a claim the governor and four people on the plane have denied.
A third woman, Anna Ruch, says the governor touched her bare lower back and said he wanted to kiss her the first time they met, at a wedding in 2019.
The probe almost didn’t get off the ground. Under New York law, the attorney general needs a referral from the governor to carry out investigations into government conduct -- itself a potential conflict of interest. In fact, Cuomo initially declined to provide the referral without the involvement of people his critics perceived as loyalists.
James, refusing that scenario, engaged in a remarkable public showdown with Cuomo by press release and tweet. She won, gaining total control over the investigation, as well as the upper hand.
“She’s doing her best under a wildly imperfect system,” said Elizabeth Crothers, co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, formed by half a dozen women who allege they experienced or witnessed harassment while working for the New York legislature.
In 2007, when Cuomo was attorney general, he issued a 53-page report that found then-Governor Spitzer had improperly used state police to smear a rival. Spitzer resigned the following year in a prostitution scandal. Cuomo then looked into whether Spitzer’s successor, Paterson, had interfered in a domestic abuse case against one of his aides. Paterson asked Cuomo to conduct the probe even after the attorney general had made it clear he planned to challenge him for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. A damaged Paterson chose not to run.
The Cuomo-James battle may ultimately fit right in with the political history of the “rough-and-tumble” state, said Democratic political consultant Jake Dilemani.
“It’s certainly not new to any New Yorker to have two very high-profile elected officials butt heads,” Dilemani said.
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