ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, facing a cascade of misconduct claims earlier this year, dashed off a letter in March directing state Attorney General Tish James to investigate the scandals that were threatening to end his career.
When James is done with her work, Cuomo assured the public, everyone will see he had done nothing wrong. “I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts from the attorney general’s report before forming an opinion,” he said at the time, refusing calls to resign.
Nearly five months later, James and the outside attorneys she hired to conduct the work appear close to wrapping up the inquiry after interviewing the governor last weekend. But Cuomo’s top aides no longer seem convinced James will deliver the findings their boss had promised and staked his future on.
In recent days and weeks, the governor’s communications team has sprinkled comments about any investigation-related news with assertions that James — the first Black woman to hold statewide office in New York — is using the probe to launch her own run for governor next year, when Cuomo may seek a fourth term.
“The continued leaks are more evidence of the transparent political motivation of the attorney general’s review,” Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s communication director and a senior adviser, said in a statement after news of the governor’s interview emerged in The New York Times.
By Wednesday, the jabs had become so blatant that fellow Democrats had started to cringe, and the head of a separate legislative impeachment investigation sent Cuomo a very public reprimand.
In a letter to the governor that he posted on Twitter, Assemblymember Charles Lavine (D-Nassau), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, warned Cuomo that language used to “demean” the attorney general and her investigation could have “severe repercussions” — and his committee might see it as an attempt to intimidate or silence witnesses relevant to both his investigation and the one run by James.
That’s an overreaction, a lawyer for the governor’s office — former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman — fired back in a letter on Thursday. Punishing the governor for his aides’ behavior would be “fundamentally inconsistent with the core values of our nation’s founders,” wrote Fishman, who previously led the prosecution of allies to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie following the George Washington Bridge scandal.
Calling an investigation politically motivated is “par for the course” among political figures, agreed Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor in New York and Columbia Law lecturer. The attacks aren’t very likely to cause witnesses with relevant information not to participate, as Lavine suggested, and it’s also not a smart play during multiple high stakes investigations, she said.
But that’s not the point.
“This is obviously geared not towards the people who are going to be making a decision about proceeding on impeachment but towards the public in the hopes that he can escape from this,” she said. “If he wants to run again, he wants the public to buy into this.”
Cuomo and his aides are waiting on the results — and potential consequences — of investigations run by at least three different entities with overlapping topics. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn are looking into allegations Cuomo’s office lied about the number of Covid-19 deaths tied to nursing homes. James’s office is investigating sexual harassment allegations by several current and former Cuomo staffers and reports of potential ethical violations in the production of a book Cuomo released last year in a lucrative deal. And the Assembly impeachment committee is looking into all of those topics, in addition the safety of the Hudson River bridge Cuomo recently named after his father.
Lavine’s letter warning the governor’s office to back off came in response to a specific tweet from Azzopardi, who suggested that James wanted his boss’ job next year. But it was hardly the first time that a Cuomo administration official questioned the motives of James’ probe.
It actually began sometime around April, after state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an elected official charged with overseeing the state’s finances, granted James the authority to conduct a criminal investigation into the reports Cuomo had recruited state employees to work on his book.
The governor’s office cried political posturing. “This is Albany politics at its worst — both the comptroller and the attorney general have spoken to people about running for governor and it is unethical to wield criminal referral authority to further political self-interest,” Azzopardi said in a response.
That messaging escalated this month when the head of the state’s transit union said he would pull his support for the governor over the multiple investigations. Azzopardi responded: “We also understand he is a political supporter of Tish James and she says she may run against the governor, and he wants more benefits in his contract.”
Then a tale emerged this week in Page Six, the New York Post’s gossip section, that Cuomo’s administration had been spreading rumors that former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was drumming up support to run for governor next year.
The tie in? One of the prosecutors James appointed to lead her probe, Joon Kim, is a longtime friend and colleague of Bharara, who has a long history with the Cuomo administration and investigated its shutdown of a commission charged with looking into corruption in state government several years ago.
“Kind of demented if you ask me,” Bharara said during a Thursday episode of his legal news podcast “Stay Tuned with Preet.” Bharara rejected the idea that he will challenge Cuomo in a primary next year and called it a decoy tactic from an administration he knows well. While the words aren’t coming from the governor’s mouth, they have his voice, he added.
“For what it’s worth, based on my experience over a number of years in the state of New York and as U.S. attorney, there is no way on earth that people around Andrew Cuomo — spokespeople, allies, those speaking on the record, off the record — are making any of these statements, including the lies about me, without the direct approval and or direction of Andrew Cuomo himself,” Bharara said. “That you can take to the bank.”
The governor’s office pointed to the Fishman letter but declined additional comment for this story.
The suggestion by Cuomo’s aides that James is eyeing the governor’s job, and that her inquiry is compromised as a result, resonates with some of the governor’s allies because it is not inconceivable. A New York AG — joked to stand for “aspiring governor” — is almost expected to consider the title upgrade. Cuomo himself was attorney general before becoming governor, as was Eliot Spitzer, who resigned after a prostitution scandal.
James, when asked about her aspirations, has said that “politics stops at the door” of her office, declining to chart her political future. When asked about some of Azzopardi’s comments during a rare off-topic news conference in May, she called them “personal attacks on me and my office.” Her office declined to comment for this story.
It’s likely Cuomo, who endorsed James in 2018, will be challenged by any number of prominent Democrats if he does run for a fourth term. While he had planned to do so in the past and has begun the fundraising process, Cuomo has not said since his latest scandals broke whether he will definitely do so.
Cuomo, who became a national star early in the pandemic with his dramatic and emotional daily TV briefings, has lost much of his luster thanks to the accusations around nursing home deaths, sexual harassment and his book deal. He maintains middling approval ratings in New York, and just one-third of voters say he should run for re-election. In a May poll, James did better than Cuomo in a hypothetical gubernatorial matchup against an unnamed Republican opponent.
James’s name is casually and regularly floated as a potential candidate by her friends and admirers — especially those on the left who criticized Cuomo long before any of this year’s scandals. “Our next Governor (*she hasn’t agreed to it yet*) has been kicking ass & taking names for NYers,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat, tweeted earlier this month alongside several photos of herself with James.
The Cuomo administration’s tough messaging marks another stage of its climb out of the foxhole the governor and his staff had burrowed in as the sexual harassment allegations emerged one after another in February and March, compounded by stories about a toxic work hierarchy.
Cuomo emerged first with an apology to anyone he’d made “uncomfortable.” Top aide Melissa DeRosa — a key figure in the nursing home debacle and the alleged culture of intimidation in the administration — didn’t reappear at any Cuomo events for weeks. Requests for comment on any number of stories went unanswered by the communications office.
But a recovery strategy began to play out as the governor pursued a business-as-normal series of vaccination events in the weeks that followed, while adding to his apology with statements that included a blanket denial he did anything wrong and an assertion that making someone “feel uncomfortable” is not sexual harassment.
His staff also began to resume their characteristic online punches. Twitter feeds that for a brief while only featured Cuomo’s vaccination events and feel-good photos of puppies once again blasted the integrity of news outlets that ran critical coverage, and offered not-subtle critiques of their portrayals over the past several months.
On July 8, DeRosa tweeted a photo from the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” with the caption “Miranda Priestly was NOT the villain in The Devil Wears Prada. Nate Cooper was. Miranda was a strong, demanding executive,” referring to Meryl Streep’s character as a never-satisfied fashion editor based on Conde Nast’s Anna Wintour. “I’m going to leave this right here,” she wrote.
She followed that up with a tweet quoting former assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Goldman’s story about how his former boss Bharara used to require black shoes in court. The casual tone was in contrast to the backlash she experienced after a March exposé reported that senior level staff in Cuomo’s office forced female aides to wear stilettos, she said, insinuating that it was a topic James’s team had brought up during interviews over past months.
“There has been much ink used & tax payer $$ spent asking if ppl were told to wear high heels working for the chamber,” she wrote. “Who reimburses NY for time on these inane questions? I wear whatever I want & never told anyone else to. Maybe I should have spent more time on shoe color *shrug emoji*”
That tweet has since been deleted.
DeRosa declined to answer questions about the tweets. But an administration source familiar with DeRosa’s thinking said the deleted tweet represents DeRosa’s “outrage” about how she and other senior women in the governor’s office have been portrayed in some news reports, which she views as “sexism and a double standard.”
The complaints from DeRosa and other Cuomo aides are only a fraction of what they will have to say about the James inquiry once it concludes, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss the investigation.
“Here you have people objectifying Melissa, talking about her shoes and legs in the press and an imaginary high heel dress code for chamber employees and then someone so flip on Twitter says ‘Preet mandated everyone wear black shoes in a court room,’” the person said by text message. “THAT is an actual male-dictated dress code but everyone thinks it’s funny and cute. She’s going to have a lot to say when this is over.”