The state Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday held its first meeting of an impeachment inquiry against Gov. Andrew Cuomo over allegations that he sexually harassed several women, as well as other controversies.
The chair of the committee, Assemblyman Charles Lavine, said it could be quite a while before it reaches any conclusions.
Lavine seemed well aware of the historical importance of the first impeachment proceeding against a sitting governor in New York in over 100 years, saying the process will have “tremendous significance.”
The only impeachment so far in New York’s history was against former Gov. William Sulzer in 1913.
Lavine laid out the scope of the investigation, which will include charges by multiple women of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by the governor and whether Cuomo and his aides covered up nursing home COVID-19 death numbers and safety concerns over the Thruway’s Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.
“The speaker has directed us to examine all credible allegations,” said Lavine, who added the probe would not be limited to those three areas of concern.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Assemblyman Michael Montesano, called the allegations “disturbing and serious” and urged the committee to also investigate the financial details of the book the governor published last fall about his success managing the pandemic.
“On the parameters of the contract and royalties from the governor’s book,” said Montesano, who added Cuomo wrote the book before the “grave” problems with nursing homes came to light.
Other committee members urged the probe to also look into charges that the governor presides over a toxic work culture, where some women allegedly were encouraged to wear high heels and dresses, and to look into the leak of one of the accuser’s personnel files to some members of the media.
Lavine said the committee has already put Cuomo and his aides on notice against trying to retaliate against any potential witnesses for their testimony.
He also introduced the attorneys from the Davis Polk and Wardwell law firm who will be leading the investigation.
They include Greg Andres, a former federal prosecutor who helped put former President Donald Trump associate Paul Manafort behind bars. Andres said one of the first steps in the investigation will be to ensure that no one in the governor’s office tries to destroy any documents.
“We’ll consider the use of subpoenas to ensure the documents are produced and there isn’t any obstruction or any destruction of documents,” Andres said.
Some of the women who accused Cuomo of harassing them have raised objections to the choice of the Davis Polk firm because it has ties to the state’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a Cuomo appointee who formerly ran the governor’s ethics commission. If the Assembly ultimately impeaches the governor, DiFiore would preside over a Senate trial. Her husband, Dennis Glazer, was a partner in the firm for 30 years and was appointed by Cuomo to two public boards.
Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti was among several on the committee to question whether the law firm might be compromised.
“To install confidence in the public, we have to hit it directly,” Abinanti said. “There’s a question on the combination of a possibility of bias, and of conflict of interest.”
Angela Burgess, who heads the firm’s white-collar defense and investigations group and has defended many corporate clients in federal corruption cases, assured lawmakers that they will conduct the probe fairly.
“Dennis Glazer retired from the partnership back in 2012, and since then has not had any involvement in the firm’s business or activities,” said Burgess. “And certainly not with respect to this matter.”
Lavine cited opinions by several law ethicists who said Davis Polk can conduct the investigation without bias.
Cuomo in recent days has had no comment on the impeachment inquiry, and has refused to answer any more questions about the allegations, including new sexual harassment accusations by a current aide, first reported Friday in the New York Times.
Cuomo spoke on Monday in a conference call with reporters.
“As you know, there’s an ongoing review by the Assembly and the Attorney General’s Office,” Cuomo said, referring to Attorney General Letitia James’s probe on the harassment charges. “And I’m not going to have any comment on that.”
The governor earlier in March apologized if he inadvertently made anyone uncomfortable and denied that he ever inappropriately touched anyone.
Neither Lavine nor the attorneys could provide a timeline for completion of the impeachment inquiry, but they said it’s likely to be “months, rather than weeks” before it is done.
Lavine also indirectly addressed criticisms by some, including several Assembly Democrats, that the impeachment inquiry could be used as a stalling tactic to buy time for the embattled governor. He said due process is the “heart of democracy.”
“We are mindful of the due process necessary to ensure the fairness of the process to everyone,” Lavine said. “The victims, and witnesses and the governor.”