New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pinning his political future on the findings of two independent inquiries into claims that he sexually abused or acted improperly against many women, despite intense demands for his resignation from leading state Democratic lawmakers.
The first investigation, headed by a pair of prosecutors whose appointment was applauded by victims’ rights activists and the governor’s most vocal opponents, appears to be moving forward apace. Another investigation, which will be led by outside counsel retained by state Assembly Democrats, has gotten off to a rocky start, with concerns about a possible conflict of interest involving a former partner in the investigators’ law firm.
Cuomo has been silent on both investigations, except to recommend that the public wait for the results before passing judgment on him — and, by implication, if he can continue in the job he’s held for more than a decade.
Cuomo and senior officials in his office, on the other hand, are digging in for what many consider to be a protracted war on several fronts. Separately, federal authorities are looking into the governor’s treatment of nursing homes and data linked to deaths among their tenants at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York, which may become entangled in the Assembly’s work. Despite the fact the that investigation may have the most significant legal repercussions, the inquiries into claims of sexual assault against Cuomo have gotten more publicity.
Attorneys for both investigations bring a wealth of experience in politically charged investigations: one, hired by the attorney general, previously investigated Cuomo over an unrelated scandal, while another, hired by the Assembly, previously worked on then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of former President Donald Trump.
Governor Joon Kim, who has already spoken with Cuomo, and Anne L. Clark are already in their second week of interviews and have already talked with multiple accusers.
Kim, a former federal prosecutor, headed the high-powered US attorney’s office in New York’s Southern District for parts of 2017 and 2018, including during the prosecution of Joseph Percoco, one of Cuomo’s top aides and close friends, who was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of corruption charges.
Clark, an employment lawyer who is known as a pioneer in the profession by his peers, has also worked in politics. In a lawsuit that ended in 1997 with the state paying out a $175,000 settlement, she represented a woman who accused former New Jersey Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian of kissing and groping her. Haytaian refuted the claims.
Kim and Clark, however, are still at the core of an increasingly volatile political maelstrom less than two weeks into their relationship. Cuomo’s office’s recent disclosures and admissions could theoretically broaden the reach of the attorney general’s inquiry. In a story published late Thursday, Beth Garvey, Cuomo’s acting special counsel, confirmed to the New Yorker that his office had leaked to reporters what she called the “redacted job records” of Lindsey Boylan, the first accuser to go public. She defended the office’s actions in a statement to CNN.
“With certain limited exceptions, as a general matter, it is within a government entity’s discretion to share redacted employment records, including in instances when members of the media ask for such public information and when it is for the purpose of correcting inaccurate or misleading statements,” Garvey said. “Given the ongoing review by the State Attorney General, we cannot comment further at this time.”
Cuomo’s office is also making available attorneys who represent the executive chamber to staffers who might be called in to meet with investigators, as first revealed by the Albany Times Union this week.
The bid has sparked fears that the governor is attempting to insert his office’s lawyers into the investigation’s inner sanctums. According to critics, the decision to embrace the pledge of help is a Catch-22 for staffers: they can either be seen answering questions from a governor’s office attorney or they can be seen refusing the bid, which could be viewed as a red flag by Cuomo’s squad.
State Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat who has called for Cuomo’s resignation, told CNN that he was taken aback when he first heard about the deal and was concerned that it would have a “chilling impact” on future witnesses and victims. “I believe it’s intended to bully people by implying that you either follow the company scripts or don’t talk at all,” he said.
To avoid a conflict of interest, Gounardes recommended that attorneys from the attorney general’s office, who are not interested in any aspect of the investigation already being conducted by outsiders Kim and Clark, be made available to the governor’s staff.
However, he said, Cuomo’s staffers are actually in an untenable situation. Gounardes is worried that, with talk of impeachment and legal proceedings requiring subpoenas, others could see the executive chamber’s lawyers as their only port of call in a violent political storm.
“It’s very easy (for staffers) to think, ‘Wow, that’s a relief. I have someone looking out for me.’ But you have no idea if the attorney that’s going with you is — first of all, they’re not your attorney. They don’t represent you as an individual. They represent the governor,” Gounardes said. “You have no assurances that what you say is not going to be used against you.”
In a statement released on Thursday, the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group formed by former state legislative workers committed to ending harassment in the state Capitol, called the executive chamber’s offer “wholly inappropriate” and indicated that “it could easily act as a screening of what the staffers could say, thereby unfairly supplying Cuomo and his enablers inside information.”
One of the group’s co-founders, Erica Vladimer, thanked the attorney general for choosing Kim and Clark. But she added that the back-and-forth that followed Cuomo’s ultimate referral — a mini-drama in which he twice attempted to shape the inquiry by appointing his own investigators only to be rebuffed by James — created more questions about his ability to let the process proceed without interference.
“The governor’s office isn’t wrong in suggesting (staffers) should have an attorney, but by providing an attorney, they’re just playing to these employees’ insecurity,” Vladimer said. (On Thursday, the Sexual Harassment Task Group released a recommendation for free legal help from outside attorneys.)
Since their initial remarks following James’ announcement that they had been retained, Kim and Clark have not made any public statements. When asked about Cuomo’s office making executive chamber lawyers accessible to staff members, the attorney general’s office refused to comment. A governor’s spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment on the office’s offer of legal services to employees. Cuomo has denied ever sexually touching someone and apologised for making others uncomfortable.
During his tenure as acting US attorney, Kim oversaw many public corruption cases that culminated in the imprisonment of several of Albany’s highest-ranking officials.
Between 2015 and 2016, the US attorney’s office reported separate criminal proceedings against Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the New York state Assembly; Dean Skelos, the former Senate majority leader; and Percoco, who were all convicted.
Kim, on the other hand, has a long history with Cuomo. When Cuomo was investigated for his 2014 decision to shut down the Moreland Commission, a body the governor created to investigate corruption in Albany before unexpectedly shutting it down less than a year later, he was the top lieutenant in the New York office.
According to two sources familiar with the encounter, Kim was present when prosecutors interviewed Cuomo. Prosecutors claimed there was “insufficient proof to prove a federal crime,” but no charges were filed against the governor.
Kim was characterized as “careful and thorough” with “impeccable judgment” by Andrew Goldstein, the former head of the public corruption unit in New York at the time, to CNN.
Following a Supreme Court decision in 2017 that made it more difficult to prosecute public corruption allegations, a federal appeals court upheld Skelos’ 2015 conviction, and Kim vowed to retry the case.