Cuomo decision stirs up debate
Posted May 10, 2018 7:16 a.m. EDT
ALBANY, N.Y. _ Gov. Andrew Cuomo's appointment of a special prosecutor to probe allegations of physical abuse of four women by former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stoked an internal debate Wednesday among the state's district attorneys about whether to challenge or criticize the governor's intervention.
The unrest among the prosecutors was sparked by Cuomo's use of state Executive Law to remove Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. and appoint Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas "to investigate, and if warranted, prosecute, any and all matters concerning the public allegations against Mr. Schneiderman."
The women's allegations that Schneiderman slapped, threatened, choked and spit on them during unrelated incidents were revealed in an article published by The New Yorker on Monday. Schneiderman resigned a few hours after the article was published online and Vance declared that his office would investigate the accusations, along with the New York Police Department.
But a day later Cuomo announced he had issued an executive order taking the case away from Vance, in part, because Schneiderman's office had been investigating the Manhattan district attorney's decision not to prosecute the alleged mistreatment of women by fallen Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein _ specifically, that he groped a model in 2015.
"There can be no suggestion of any possibility of the reality or appearance of any conflict or anything less than a full, complete and unbiased investigation," Cuomo said in a letter released Tuesday evening that was addressed to Singas and acting Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood.
Vance fired back that same evening, issuing a two-page letter to Cuomo saying the only conflict was created by Cuomo when he asked the attorney general to review the handling of the Weinstein case by the Manhattan district attorney and the NYPD.
He characterized Cuomo's actions in the Weinstein allegations as possibly politically motivated and "an unwarranted intrusion by an elected executive into a charging decision by an independent prosecutor."
Vance also said that there was no potential conflict with his office investigating the abuse allegations against Schneiderman once he resigned as attorney general on Monday night.
"At that point he became a private citizen like any other we investigate, and he is no longer in a position to influence the actions of his former office," Vance wrote.
The war of words continued late Wednesday afternoon when Cuomo's chief counsel, Alphonso David, sent a letter to Vance _ that, like the prior letters, was publicly released _ asserting, "it is frankly absurd to think that you can investigate an office that is simultaneously investigating your own conduct. ... Moreover, credible women's organizations have come forward with concerns about your handling of sexual abuse or harassment cases."
As the battle unfolded, the state's district attorneys privately debated what position to take and whether to criticize Cuomo or support Vance, according to sources briefed on their discussions.
Oneida County District Attorney Scott D. McNamara, president of the state district attorneys association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
The organization, of which Schneiderman had been a member before his resignation, has had a prickly relationship with Cuomo over the governor's 2015 executive order that gave Schneiderman the authority to intervene as a special prosecutor in cases involving fatal encounters between police and unarmed civilians.
The state district attorneys association had criticized and internally debated the constitutionality of Cuomo's 2015 order, but voted last year not to file a motion in support of a court petition filed by Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel E. Abelove challenging Cuomo's action.
The petition by Abelove was thrown out and he was later indicted by Schneiderman's office on charges that he lied to a grand jury about his handling of a fatal police shooting in Troy. The case against Abelove is pending.
Cuomo signed the 2015 order following a series of controversial fatal encounters between police and unarmed civilians in New York and across the nation.
Despite any concerns about Cuomo's decision to push Vance off the new investigation of Schneiderman's alleged misconduct, it's unlikely the district attorneys association will challenge the move in court.
Dennis C. Vacco, a former state attorney general, said that state law empowers a governor to appoint a special prosecutor at their discretion when there may be a potential conflict of interest involving a local district attorney.
In 1996, Gov. George Pataki removed Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson from a cop-killer case after Johnson pledged that he would not enforce the death penalty. Pataki assigned Vacco as special prosecutor, and an appeals court later upheld the decision.
"I think that while this (Schneiderman abuse case) is not quite the same circumstances as the incident back in the '90s involving the cop homicide, the governor clearly has the authority to do this," Vacco said.
Vacco, who is in private practice in Buffalo, said he also thinks that Cuomo made the right decision to remove Vance. And, he added, the investigation should examine whether Schneiderman improperly used any state resources "in the form of advancing his trysts or covering them up."
"You'd think that Cy would welcome it ... being relieved of the implication that somehow his decision, no matter how fair and balanced, was going to be attacked as retribution by the Schneiderman supporters," Vacco said. "Cuomo has taken that off the table."
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