Andrew Cuomo Photo: @nygovcuomo
Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and today we have to talk about disgraced former governor Andrew Cuomo. I know, I know, some of you are probably already turning away in disgust or wondering why we have to broach this now, but for better or worse, this ongoing saga is acutely relevant to the race for the governorship that is taking shape in advance of next year’s primary and general elections.
Kathy Hochul. Photo: @govkathyhochul
For one thing, incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul would still be a relatively powerless lieutenant governor had Cuomo not been toppled by the sexual harassment allegations against him, making her claim to the governorship somewhat contingent on whether Cuomo was railroaded, as he and his small circle of die-hard staff contend, or rightfully deposed after a shocking abuse of power. The bungling of the filing of the first criminal complaint against Cuomo has only added fuel to the fire of the former governor’s stringent denials of wrongdoing.
The candidate best-positioned to challenge Hochul is arguably Attorney General Letitia James, who is personally entangled in the back-and-forth as the originator of the report that meticulously laid out the accusations against Cuomo and triggered his resignation. While that report was produced independently by attorneys from two outside law firms—in part over concerns that James herself would have too much of a political interest in its outcome to oversee an impartial investigation—the attorney general has muddied the waters by publicly associating herself with it, referring to it as “our report” and making allusions to speaking with witnesses.
This left an opening for Cuomo’s people to accuse her of having engineered the whole thing for political purposes, despite the fact that he had tasked her with conducting the inquiry in the first place. Between all of that, the criminal investigations, the Assembly inquiry, suggestions of inconsistencies in witnesses’ statements, delayed releases of investigative material, and the political implications of all of this, this situation gets very confusing, very fast. We thought we might run through some of the timeline in an attempt to succinctly detail what happened and is happening and when, why it matters, and what might happen next.
Letitia James. Photo: @newyorkstateag
The allegations flow in
The first allegations to emerge did so in the press, as multiple women—some who worked for the state and some who did not—detailed misconduct to reporters. The claims included inappropriate comments, questions of a sexual nature, unwanted touching, and, perhaps most seriously, accusations of forcible groping. We won’t get in depth into each allegation, as these are a matter of pretty broad public awareness at this point and, for our purposes here, the focus is what’s happened since.
As controversy swirled and some New York Democrats began calling for his resignation, Cuomo initially tried to hand-pick a supposed outside investigator, but in the face of overwhelming pressure he acquiesced to allowing James to run an inquiry with an outside law firm, which would be deputized as acting under the authority of the attorney general’s office. Almost simultaneously, the State Assembly launched an impeachment inquiry into the governor. At the time, Cuomo welcomed James’ inquiry as something that might actually exonerate him and put the matter to rest before the Assembly could impeach him; he quickly shifted his attitude as it became clear the inquiry was closing in on real misconduct.
The mechanics here are often glazed over, but they’re important to understand: the totality of the investigation was conducted by outside lawyers deputized by, but otherwise unaffiliated with, the attorney general’s office. Joon Kim, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, was hired for his investigative chops as a former acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; Anne Clark, partner at Vladeck, Raskin & Clark, was hired due to her experience in workplace and employment matters. Kim, Clark, and their associates, now with subpoena power, conducted interviews, gathered evidence, and ultimately wrote the damning report without direction from James. Nonetheless, her name is on the front page of the report and she has publicly associated herself with it, including by taking a victory lap when a criminal summons was issued against Cuomo late last month (more on that later).
Andrew Cuomo. Photo: @nygovcuomo
Upon its release, Cuomo resigned, though has retained a small cadre of former staff and advisors including spokesman Rich Azzopardi. Given his resignation, the Assembly decided to drop its pursuit of a potential impeachment. The report was not conducted as a criminal investigation, and so the next step was for various local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to utilize it as the basis for their own inquiries, as several have. While the report itself is fully public, some investigators asked James’ office not to release the underlying investigative materials, including transcripts and exhibits, which only helped to shroud the whole process in an air of secrecy, until yesterday, when the documents were finally released. (As some readers may know, I also sit on the New York Daily News Editorial Board, and we had been critical of the decision to keep the documents under wraps as well as James’ decision to publicly take ownership of the report.)
A faulty process
In another unfortunate blow to the process, a misdemeanor criminal summons that Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple had filed against Cuomo was promptly leaked before Apple could communicate with either the district attorney or Cuomo’s own attorney, Rita Glavin, very shortly after James had announced her gubernatorial run. This was incredibly bad optics, even if ultimately it doesn’t call into question the credibility of the evidence itself—which, I want to really emphasize here, it does not. As part of their scorched-earth campaign, Glavin has now petitioned James’ office to investigate Apple for ostensible misconduct.
Some of Cuomo’s people have also seized on supposed discrepancies in victims’ testimony, but all of these appear to be minor and eminently explainable memory lapses like former aide Brittany Commisso having at different times described a door being slammed either before or after she was groped by the governor. The Albany County investigation seems to be the farthest along, but there are others, all of which are parting from roughly the same evidence but taking individual tacks, and all of which could conceivably end with Cuomo facing a full criminal trial.
Another run by Cuomo?
The wildest card in this deck of wild cards is ultimately Cuomo’s apparent wish to actually run for governor again. Some of the public statements made by his inner circle essentially claim that the people of New York were deprived of their duly elected governor and now wish to see him return after the political sideshow that these investigations have been. That would be very difficult to do if he’s in court facing trial for sex crimes, but if, for example, the Albany County DA were to disagree with Apple and determine that no formal charges should be filed—which is a definite possibility—that gives Cuomo all the more ammunition to argue that this was all a ploy.
In that environment, the next few months will be critical in setting up the race. Depending on how things go, Cuomo could either be a disgraced criminal defendant or a publicly vindicated underdog; James could be either the dogged overseer of the probe that brought a predator to justice or a scheming political operator who devised the removal of a political rival; and Hochul could be either the rightful heir to the governorship, having steered the ship with a steady hand in the wake of scandal and misconduct, or the lieutenant who abandoned her captain to the maelstrom in order to greedily take the wheel. Here, it’s really the perceptions that matter.