"What did the president know and when did he know it?”
Sen. Howard Baker – June 1973
When the senator from Tennessee queried White House Counsel John Dean during the Watergate hearings all those years ago, he cut to the chase about President Richard Nixon’s role in the sordid affair.
Now, questions surrounding the abrupt resignation of state economic development official Sam Hoyt revealed back on Oct. 30 are rising to nowhere near Watergate level. But it is no accident that Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy recalled that famous phrase when he pounced on the situation a couple of days later.
“What did Andrew Cuomo know and when did he know it?” he asked of reporters summoned to Erie County GOP Headquarters on Nov. 1.
Last weekend, the controversy enveloping Hoyt gained steam when a former state worker with whom he had been romantically involved – Lisa Cater – filed suit in Manhattan federal court alleging that Cuomo and the state ignored her pleas to investigate sexual harassment complaints against him.
Suddenly, the New York City tabloids were screaming with “Pervnado” headlines. And Hoyt’s acknowledged mistake got thrust squarely into the statewide political arena – just as Cuomo gears up for re-election next year.
The state Republican Party piled on Monday. It called for an independent investigation into how the Democratic governor and his administration handled the Hoyt matter.
The GOP asks many of the same questions originally posed (and as yet unanswered) by The Buffalo News. It wants to know when Empire State Development Commissioner Howard Zemsky first knew of the allegations against his regional president and the process by which Cater’s complaint against Cuomo’s longtime political associate was handled.
“The governor is hiding behind politics and rhetoric that his ‘record speaks for itself,’ but his handling of this case and subsequent stonewalling is what speaks volumes,” said Jessica Proud, a GOP spokeswoman.
Cuomo’s office, meanwhile, emphasizes steps it took to investigate Cater’s claims against Hoyt.
“We take every allegation of sexual harassment seriously, as evidenced by the three separate investigations that were opened by a result of this complaint,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever.
“This isn’t political and anyone attempting to make it so should be ashamed.”
They say the probe encountered Cater’s unwillingness to cooperate after she filed the charges, which her attorney says stemmed from her loss of confidence in any state investigation.
Now, however, even non-political groups are weighing in.
“The state appears to have prioritized protecting Sam Hoyt over protecting his victim from sexual harassment,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY – one of the state’s top good government organizations.
All of this points to a new reality: Hoyt’s misstep has injected an unanticipated and volatile ingredient into New York’s political stew – just as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein raises the sexual harassment issue to unprecedented levels.
The governor’s staff may brand inclusion of such matters into the political arena as shameful. But shame seems to have exited New York politics long ago.
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Two Erie County names continue to dominate discussion of top legal appointments awaiting the Trump administration in Western New York: John Sinatra for federal judge, and Peter Vito for U.S. marshal.
Sources familiar with the situation say Rep. Chris Collins – one of the president’s closest New York allies – will exert key influence in these matters.
For as long as anyone can remember, the U.S. attorney appointment goes to Buffalo and the marshal to Rochester. If Collins wangles both for Buffalo while representing a district book-ended by both cities, he faces some interesting maneuvering in the Flower City.