Steck: "Deeply disturbing" Assembly Judiciary investigation findings parallel James' report into Cuomo
Documents and evidence from the aborted impeachment investigation into former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are being reviewed by state Assembly Judiciary Committee members in Albany. It comes after State Attorney General Letitia James released hundreds of pages of transcripts and other evidence that were part of her investigation into sexual harassment claims against Cuomo, who resigned in August.
Evidence tied to the impeachment probe includes interviews with 165 witnesses and documents, recordings, messages, memos, transcripts and more. Cuomo denies wrongdoing and says the investigations were politically motivated. A separate investigation by the Albany County Sheriff led to Cuomo being charged with forcible touching, accused of groping an aide at the governor’s mansion.
Democratic State Assemblyman Phil Steck of Colonie is on the Judiciary Committee and spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus today.
What can you tell us about what you've read in this tranche of documents?
So the report of the Judiciary Committee strongly corroborates the findings of the attorney general that the governor engaged in sexual harassment. It also establishes that the parameters set by the Joint Committee on Public Ethics for the governor to write his book were violated and that the governor basically used his governmental staff for the purpose of writing a book for personal benefit. Interestingly, by the way, the governor had a $30 million campaign account; he could have easily spent a million dollars and hired a staff to write the book. So it's really extraordinary that he did that.
On the issue of the nursing home deaths, the governor made sure that the Department of Health report listed only people who died in nursing homes rather than people who were sent from nursing homes infected with COVID to hospitals and then died in the hospital. I think one can make a strong argument that that was materially misleading to the public and to the legislature. So those are sort of the high points of what the investigation done by the Judiciary Committee found. You know, just to add, when you read these things, it is very deeply disturbing.
Were there any new pieces of information that you didn't know about yet in this investigation that you think the public should be hearing about?
There's a little bit of new material there. But on the whole, it parallels the attorney general's findings.
Now, we should say for people who may have lost track of all the disparate threads here, the attorney general hired her own independent investigators. Those are different investigators than were used by your committee to do their independent investigation.
Yes, you know, what's really interesting about the way New York State government works is the attorney general had no power to investigate the governor, the governor tried to appoint his own investigator. There was public outcry. And as a result of that, the governor gave the Attorney General the authority to investigate the governor. I think the attorney general understood that, you know, that she didn't want to be seen as political. So she appointed two independent attorneys to investigate this matter, one who comes from a big corporate law firm, they are typically involved in defending people accused of things, and then another from one of the most famous plaintiffs’ employment law firms in the nation, who typically represent employees in discrimination cases. So I think the attorney general acted extremely well and how she put together that investigatory team.
Based on what you've read and the documents made available to the Judiciary Committee, we didn't get to this point because Governor Cuomo resigned, but is it fair to say that Governor Cuomo would have been impeached based on the evidence you've seen?
And for his part, Cuomo and his spokesperson and his attorney have said, really, an election was overturned as he was hounded out of office on a political basis. That that doesn't track with what you've seen here?
Absolutely not. And, you know, this governor put on the big show for political purposes of trying to stop sexual harassment, when in fact, he was a pretty extreme offender. And then, further, he wrote the book for political purposes to promote himself, but he didn't do so in a proper manner and easily could have done so. So the claim of political motivation is ridiculous.
When will a final report from the Judiciary Committee based on these documents be available?
I don't know the answer to that. That is up to the chair of the committee, and I did not have that discussion with Chairman Chuck Lavine.
Is there anything you can tell us about the other evidence that’s said to be now available besides the transcripts and so on?
I think that the evidence, there's a lot of evidence in terms of emails and office logs and ways you can determine when certain people were at certain places at certain times. I think they interviewed more people, perhaps, than the Attorney General did. There was additional information, but essentially, the essential facts are the same.
Is there any information in this round of investigation that is flattering to Cuomo his case or his argument? Is there any exonerating evidence that you've seen?
No. There, there was an investigation that the committee undertook as to whether the governor intervened in procuring favorable safety reports about the Tappan Zee or Mario Cuomo Bridge. And the evidence that we saw did not indicate that there was any inappropriate behavior by the governor. Certainly the problem, there was a problem with bolts that came to the attention of the governor. But there were, the Department of Transportation did an investigation that included the bridge was safe, and also as a result of some civil whistleblower litigation. The Attorney General's Office also concluded that the bridge was safe. So that was not a topic that the governor's counsel ever addressed with the committee. But our finding was that it was unlikely that there would ever be evidence to show that the governor had engaged in any inappropriate behavior with respect to the bridge safety.
Just to return to the COVID memoir to wrap up here. This week, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics rescinded the earlier approval for Governor Cuomo to write that pandemic memoir for which he was paid $5.1 million. So it's going to be wrapped up in litigation, we imagine, now. He's retained an attorney to fight that. What kind of changes would you like to see to that sort of process going forward and to the ethics board?
So one of the major problems with the state of New York and its government is how much power is given to the governor in the constitution of this state. It's unprecedented in any democratic government. Because the governor controls the budget. That's not how the Founding Fathers envisioned democracy to work. There was always the legislature which was the body closest to the people that controlled the budget. Here, the governor controls the budget. And what he does is he'll put a lot of things in the budget that aren't budgetary at all. And through that device, insists that all the appointees to commissions be basically, you know, a majority controlled by the governor. That's been the problem with JCOPE from day one. So it really goes back to this whole question of whether the governor should control the budget. I know that sounds weird, but that's how it works because he uses the budget to bludgeon the legislature to give him more power over things than he should have.
A legacy of Silver v. Pataki, circa 1998.
Yes, exactly. That goes back to the turn of the century when New York used to have a traditional democratic budget process, but sort of the Brahmins of reform determined that the governor should get more power because they were afraid of how the legislature might spend the money. But that's not the way democratic government works. You have to buy by how the people that you've elected work, and if you don't have to vote him out of office, instead of saying we need an all -powerful czar to over things in the state, that hasn't worked out very well.
Last thing: You have endorsed, Zephyr Teachout to run for attorney general. She's in the Democratic primary, which is growing by the day. Will you weigh in on the race for governor?
I certainly will at an appropriate time.
Cuomo's spokesperson released a response later Friday:
“The Assembly Judiciary Committee has chosen not to review their findings with us which is their prerogative, but it may once again result in a one-sided report. However, we must all live within the same standard.
State employees volunteered to assist the governor with his book American Crisis and now the Assembly apparently wants to criticize them. If they want to set a new standard that is also their prerogative — but the current standard is that a state employee can volunteer in a personal or political effort as long as they take time off so that there is no cost to the state."