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NY Assembly Speaker Draws Fire As He Tries To Tamp Down Tensions Over Cuomo Impeachment Inquiry

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie
Karen DeWitt
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie

A member of the New York State Assembly committee carrying out an impeachment inquiry into Governor Andrew Cuomo says the Democrat’s administration might be trying to intimidate potential witnesses in an ongoing investigation by the state Attorney General concerning sexual harassment allegations against the governor. Meanwhile, remarks by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie drew fire from the attorney representing one of the women who say Cuomo harassed them.The dispute began on Wednesday when Democrat Charles Lavine, the chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which is overseeing the impeachment inquiry into Cuomo, issued a stern warning to the governor’s communications director and senior aide Rich Azzopardi. Lavine took issue with tweets that Azzopardi posted, disparaging a union leader who broke with Cuomo as an “extortionist,” and questioning the political motivations of Democratic Attorney General Tish James. James is conducting an investigation into multiple allegations of sexual harassment against the governor, as well as accusations that the governor used staff to help him write and edit a memoir, for which he was paid $5.1 million. Lavine says he previously warned Cuomo and his aides against intimidating potential witnesses or trying to retaliate again them, and he says Azzopardi’s attempts to demean the Attorney General “undermine” the investigation and send “profoundly negative signals to witnesses.” Lavine warned that Azzopardi’s comments could have “severe repercussions” in terms of the Judiciary committees’ “consideration of the question of the impeachment of the governor.” 

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Steck, a member of the Judiciary Committee, says he agrees, and says Azzopardi’s statements are a “major concern.”  

“Rich Azzopardi has a reputation of being a bomb thrower,” Steck said. “And he’s following on that reputation and in this situation it’s just completely inappropriate.”   

Cuomo’s private attorney issued a spirited response, saying Azzopardi’s tweets are not an attempt to suppress witness testimony. Attorney Paul Fishman says it is Lavine who is acting inappropriately, by threatening to punish the governor’s aides for “speaking about important issues of public policy.”  He says Lavine is attempting to quell Azzopardi’s right to free speech under the federal and state constitutions.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who attended an unrelated event in Schenectady with Assemblyman Steck, says he’s trying to stay neutral until the impeachment inquiry concludes.  

“I’m going to wait until the results of that inquiry, and then I’ll comment then,” Heastie told reporters.

The attorney general, whose investigators interviewed Cuomo on July 17, is believed to be nearing the final stages of her probe. But Heastie says if the final report finds evidence of wrongdoing, that alone won’t trigger impeachment proceedings.  

“I believe that it should be a part of the Assembly's review, but I don't know if the report itself, alone, without the conclusion of the Judiciary Committee's work, should rise to an action," Heastie said.  

Those remarks drew the ire of Debra Katz, the attorney representing Charlotte Bennett, one of the women who say Cuomo sexually harassed her. Katz accused Heastie of actively obstructing efforts to hold Cuomo responsible for his alleged actions, saying his remarks are a “betrayal of his duties of the office,” and demonstrates his loyalty to the governor over the “rule of law or to the women who have been victimized.” Katz demanded that the speaker retract his statement.  

A spokesman for Heastie, Michael Whyland, said in a tweet, that Heastie’s remarks were “mischaracterized.” Whyland says the speaker wants the AG’s report to be part of the impeachment inquiry, but he says the Assembly is also looking into other allegations against the governor as well, including the book deal.  

Critics say the Assembly impeachment inquiry, which began in early March, is taking too long, and that Assembly Democrats are stalling to provide cover for Cuomo. Judiciary Committee member Steck says that’s not true. He says the impeachment inquiry recently gained subpoena power, and the law firm hired to carry out the investigation is now taking sworn testimony from witnesses. 

“I certainly would believe, hope and expect that we would be done with our work in the Judiciary Committee before the end of the year,” said Steck. “And hopefully considerably before that time.” 

A probe by the U.S. Attorney for Eastern New York over allegations that Cuomo and his aides covered up the number of deaths of nursing home residents from COVID-19 is also ongoing.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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