National News

Cuomo Asks for Special Prosecutor to Investigate Schneiderman

Posted May 8, 2018 11:26 p.m. EDT

Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked Tuesday night that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate allegations that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman assaulted four women he was romantically involved with over several years, taking the inquiry away from the Manhattan district attorney.

Hours after The New Yorker reported on Monday that they had accused Schneiderman of assault, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., announced that his office would investigate the allegations, raising the possibility that criminal charges would accompany Schneiderman’s political fall from grace.

But by early Tuesday, Cuomo had raised questions about Vance’s ability to be impartial, saying he wanted “an investigation by an independent district attorney” who did not have “a whiff of conflict.” And by nightfall, he had written a letter ordering the Nassau County district attorney, Madeline Singas, be appointed to investigate “any and all matters” related to Schneiderman’s mistreatment of his former romantic partners.

In his letter, Cuomo said Singas would have the power to take over the case from the Manhattan district attorney. He said Schneiderman’s previous investigation of Vance’s handling of a 2015 investigation into Harvey Weinstein created “at a minimum the appearance of a conflict of interest,” and that “the victims deserved nothing less” than “an unbiased investigation.”

Vance fired back at the governor Tuesday night, saying in a letter that he objected to the decision to appoint a special prosecutor. “Put simply, no prosecutors are better equipped to investigate and pursue such cases in Manhattan than those in my office,” he wrote.

He also said governor himself had created the conflict of interest when he ordered the attorney general to conduct the review of the Weinstein case, a move Vance called an “unwarranted intrusion by an elected executive into a charging decision by an independent prosecutor.”

He further noted that because Schneiderman was no longer the attorney general, “the purported conflict no longer exists.”

Schneiderman, who resigned soon after the story broke, Tuesday retained Isabelle Kirshner, a well-known defense lawyer with the firm Clayman & Rosenberg, to represent him.

If the allegations are proved true, he could face a host of criminal charges, including assault, harassment, forcible touching, strangulation and related offenses, former prosecutors and legal experts said. Prosecutors will also have to determine whether Schneiderman used government resources to cover up his actions or whether the threats he made were under color of law. Still, legal experts say prosecutors will face several legal and political hurdles in investigating the case.

Two of the women interviewed, Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam, said Schneiderman choked and repeatedly hit them. Both women said they sought medical treatment. Schneiderman also threatened to kill them if they broke up with him, they said, and he told one woman he could have her followed and her phones tapped. All four women who spoke to the magazine said that they had been romantically involved with Schneiderman, but that the violence was not consensual. Cuomo made it clear on Tuesday he wanted someone other than Vance to investigate the allegations. In March, Cuomo had directed Schneiderman to review how the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the New York Police Department handle sexual assault complaints, including a 2015 sexual assault allegation against Weinstein.

At the time, Vance had said that there was not enough evidence to prosecute, even though Weinstein's accuser, Ambra Battilana, an Italian model, had provided police with a recording of him apologizing in response to a question about why he had groped her breasts

“I want to make sure the district attorneys have no conflicts whatsoever with the attorney general’s office either institutionally or personally,” Cuomo said. “So, it’s very important that the district attorney or attorneys that do the investigation have not even the whiff or perception of conflict, because the statement we need to make is you come forward, you show the bravery to come forward, you will be heard, justice will be done.”

In a letter to the acting attorney general, Cuomo said Singas would not only investigate the allegations in The New Yorker article but would also look into whether the attorney general’s staff and office resources were used “facilitate alleged abusive liaisons.”

Singas was the former head of the special victims bureau in the Nassau County district attorney’s office before she was elected to lead the office in 2015.

The case involving Schneiderman would normally fall under at least two jurisdictions: One woman said she was physically assaulted in Schneiderman’s Upper West Side home in Manhattan, and another woman said she was assaulted at a place he was staying at in the Hamptons in Suffolk County, Long Island.

Sheila Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk County district attorney, said the office was investigating the allegation. However, if the governor appointed a special prosecutor, Kelly said, “we would fully support that in any way we could.”

Singas will face obstacles. For starters, she must convince the women to testify. Then, some of the allegations may be too old to prosecute because the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor is two years, and for a felony five years. The alleged abuse occurred between 2013 and 2017.

Schneiderman could face a felony charge for some of his behavior depending on how severe the assaults were and if they involved strangulation, legal experts said. (Ironically, Schneiderman, who was a New York state senator for 12 years, crafted a law that made life-threatening strangulation a crime and the obstruction of breathing a crime punishable by up to a year in jail.)

The women did not file police reports at the time of the alleged incidents, but any medical records and photos they have could prove useful toward an investigation, though it would not be necessary.

“This could be a ‘he said, she said,’ but there are a lot of ‘she saids,'” said Ellen Yaroshefsky, a Hofstra University law professor.

Evan Krutoy, a former Manhattan prosecutor who now focuses on internal sexual harassment investigations for companies, said the allegations reported by the magazine do not appear to amount to more than misdemeanor conduct and strangulation in the second degree. That means some may be too old to prosecute.

“To prove a slap as a felony is almost impossible,” he said. “There would need to have been a weapon involved or extreme injury for a greater charge.” Eugene J. O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the case will “obviously revolve around what the victims say and their accounting of what happened.”

“Depending on what the victims say will determine the kind of case and whether it will be relatively insignificant charges or profoundly life altering charges,” he said.

O’Donnell said that even if the case involving Weinstein were not under review, the nature of the relationship between any Manhattan district attorney and the New York attorney general might present a conflict of interest.

“Manhattan is an outsize prosecutor’s office and conceivably others don’t have much to do with Schneiderman,” he said. “If we’re talking about building confidence in the system and making sure the door is fully open to victims and avoiding the appearance of impropriety then it is better for the Manhattan district attorney to step aside.”