ALBANY – After Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sought to name who would investigate claims that he sexually harassed two former staffers, lawmakers on Monday pushed a new measure to greatly expand the powers of the state attorney general to independently probe wrongdoing.
Pressure was also mounting Monday by a growing number of lawmakers to end broad legal powers Cuomo was given during the Covid-19 pandemic – another sign of the Democratic governor’s rapidly worsening political problems.
Cuomo, facing a run of controversies that threaten his administration, on Sunday relented – after sharp criticism from fellow Democrats – and agreed to refer the sexual harassment accusations against him to an outside lawyer appointed by Attorney General Letitia James.
On Monday afternoon, Cuomo's office sent a required formal referral letter to James for the outside investigation to commence.
"This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously. As the letter states, at the close of the review, the findings will be disclosed in a public report," James said.
The referral letter comes as Cuomo’s office hired criminal defense lawyer Elkan Abramowitz, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Buffalo News in 2016 reported the lawyer was billing the state $917 per hour to represent Cuomo and the administration in the Buffalo Billion bid-rigging scandal. Abramowitz also has represented film producer and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein, was retained to handle questions about how Cuomo undercounted Covid nursing home deaths..
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Charlotte Bennett, who on Saturday accused Cuomo of sexually harassing her, has retained Washington lawyer Debra Katz, whose clients have included Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who accused current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s.
Bennett on Monday issued a statement dismissing a statement Cuomo issued over the weekend on the growing scandal, saying that the Democratic governor "refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior."
While the legal maneuvering in the matter begins, lawmakers, including Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, want to end the ability of Cuomo – and future governors – to control whether the state’s top lawyer can independently commence an investigation of potential criminal or civil violations.
The legislative blows to Cuomo are coming from major and rank-and-file Democrats in the Senate and Assembly, and continue an expanding narrative that the third-term governor faces a growing exodus of people away from him within the party he controls.
Republicans are more focused on a singular demand: that Cuomo, amid mounting scandals over sexual harassment claims and Covid deaths in nursing homes, resign from office.
“The right thing is for these investigations to go forward to get to the truth and, I believe, the right thing is for the governor to step aside," Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, said Monday afternoon at the Capitol.
After a second woman over the weekend publicly accused Cuomo of sexually harassing her, Cuomo sought to tap a former federal judge, who works with a longtime friend of the governor, as an outside investigator to look into the matters.
That idea flopped and by Sunday morning Cuomo tried again: he proposed that an outside investigator be jointly named by James and the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore, whom Cuomo nominated for the top post on the Court of Appeals.
That idea, too, flopped, after opposition from James and a number of top Democrats. Hours later, Cuomo said he was referring the matter to James, who will hire a private law firm to look into the claims of the two women.
But State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat and former senior federal prosecutor, said Cuomo, under current law, will still get to receive weekly updates about the investigation and that he controls the dollars to finance such a probe.
“The attorney general must be empowered to conduct investigations and prosecutions without fear and favor, no matter the subject," Kaminsky said in quickly introducing the bill on Monday.
The measure is expected to be introduced soon in the Assembly and sponsored by Peoples-Stokes; she said her staff was reviewing the Kaminsky bill.
Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, a Lancaster Democrat, said she endorses the bill and will be a prime co-sponsor of it in the Assembly. “If the attorney general believes an investigation of the governor is warranted, she shouldn’t need to wait for permission from him to do so," the assemblywoman said Monday.
Wallace said she believes the bill, if passed quickly, will directly affect the upcoming investigation of Cuomo by ending things like weekly reports the attorney general must send him about the probe. "Nobody should be involved in their own investigation," Wallace said.
On Monday afternoon, Cuomo's special counsel, Beth Garvey, said in a letter to the attorney general that the administration was dropping the legal requirement for the state's top lawyer to provide weekly updates about the course of the investigation of Cuomo.
Under current law, an investigation into a matter of “public interest” concerning “the public peace, public safety and public justice” must first get a referral from the governor, state agency department heads or the state comptroller.
The current law gives Cuomo too much power over investigations of his own administration, lawmakers say, including the authority to get weekly updates about witness testimony.
“A sitting governor should not have control over these resources nor should one be given key information and oversight authority over an investigation into him or her," according to a bill memo filed Monday by Kaminsky when he introduced the measure.
The bill also seeks to more broadly change the law that Kaminsky says now inhibits the attorney general’s power to investigate public corruption or other matters by first requiring a referral from a state agency head.
The measure seeks to authorize the attorney general to investigate and prosecute criminal matters “without inhibition” in the same way as local district attorneys.
Besides the new sexual harassment scandals, Cuomo is also still facing fallout from a James report that his administration undercounted the number of nursing home residents who died in the past year from Covid. The U.S. Justice Department is also looking into that matter. A state lawmaker from New York City also recently alleged that Cuomo threatened his political future because of criticism the lawmaker has aimed at the governor over the handling of Covid in nursing homes.