US Attorney to Cuomo: Witness tampering and obstruction are still illegal, you know

The gloves have come off in New York, where Andrew Cuomo’s easy cruise to re-election as governor of New York has hit a major detour. Last week, the New York Times exposed Cuomo’s attempts to interfere with an anti-corruption commission he had established in August 2013, and then abruptly shut down in March. US Attorney Preet Bharara had cooperated with the Moreland Commission rather than press new investigations out of his own office, but got suspicious about Cuomo’s actions and took over the panel’s files. This led to the discovery that Cuomo’s office had demanded the retraction of subpoenas and the end to probes of people in Cuomo’s administration.

After the NYT exposé, several figures in Cuomo’s circle have publicly come out to criticize the Bharara probe, and yesterday the US Attorney’s office issued its response — a warning that Cuomo and his aides had better refrain from tampering with witnesses and obstruction of justice.

Oh, yeah … it’s on (via Jim Geraghty):

In an escalation of the confrontation between the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over the governor’s cancellation of his own anticorruption commission, Mr. Bharara has threatened to investigate the Cuomo administration for possible obstruction of justice or witness tampering.

The warning, in a sharply worded letter from Mr. Bharara’s office, came after several members of the panel issued public statements defending the governor’s handling of the panel, known as the Moreland Commission, which Mr. Cuomo created last year with promises of cleaning up corruption in state politics but shut down abruptly in March. …

At least some of those statements were prompted by calls from the governor or his emissaries, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation who were unwilling to be named for fear of reprisal.

One commissioner who received a call from an intermediary on behalf of the governor’s office said he found the call upsetting and declined to make a statement.

The letter from prosecutors, which was read to The New York Times, says, “We have reason to believe a number of commissioners recently have been contacted about the commission’s work, and some commissioners have been asked to issue public statements characterizing events and facts regarding the commission’s operation.”

“To the extent anyone attempts to influence or tamper with a witness’s recollection of events relevant to our investigation, including the recollection of a commissioner or one of the commission’s employees, we request that you advise our office immediately, as we must consider whether such actions constitute obstruction of justice or tampering with witnesses that violate federal law.”

We often hear presidents and governors say that they have to wait for an investigation to complete its work before offering comment, other than just anodyne expressions of innocence. This demonstrates the wisdom of that policy. This particular example is almost risibly ironic, since it appears that Cuomo and his team did exactly what got them into trouble in the first place — leaned on the commissioners to keep the governor out of trouble. It’s practically a demonstration of how the alleged corruption and obstruction worked. And that would, indeed, risk adding more counts to any indictment that may arise in the future.

Plus, by going public, Cuomo has given Bharara another opportunity to respond in kind. For a man who wants to win another term in office in just three months, provoking prosecutors into reminding the public of suspicions of corruption seems like a rather curious strategy.

Republicans may want Cuomo gone for obvious reasons; they want to win control of the governor’s office, and are hoping that Rob Astorino could knock off Cuomo. But on the Left, rising anger over Cuomo’s battles with Bill DeBlasio in New York City and the treatment given to progressive challenger Zephyr Teachout has the bloc already unhappy with the incumbent. Ryan Cooper says it’s time for Democrats to dump Cuomo as well:

Cuomo has consistently obstructed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda. Six months in, the de Blasio mayoralty looks to be off to a decent start. But the truth is that the mayor of New York simply doesn’t have that much power to institute major policy in the face of opposition from Albany, and getting Cuomo to go along has been like pulling teeth. Instead of raising taxes on the rich, Cuomo wants to cut them. He blocked rental subsidies for the homeless. Worst of all is Cuomo’s atrocious urban policy, particularly on public transportation, whose coffers he wants to raid to alleviate costs for drivers. De Blasio seems to get that New York City is absolutely dependent on its subways and buses, but like most rich people Cuomo is a driving partisan to the bone.

Third is corruption. Obviously, the Times investigation is the major mark against him here, though his campaign has also admitted to rounding up fake protesters to harass Zephyr Teachout while she is campaigning.

The bottom line is that Andrew Cuomo is the worst kind of backstabbing, triangulating “centrist” in the wretched No Labels mold. Better for liberals to beat him now, or at least make his victory as unimpressive as possible, before we have to beat him in a presidential primary down the line.

The presidential aspirations have already dissipated, and now it’s a question as to whether Cuomo can cross the finish line. The problem with Cooper’s advice is that relatively few outside of New York City want a more progressive governor than Cuomo, and the two other options Cooper mentions will have a very difficult time getting traction — especially Howie Hawkins running at the moment on the Green Party ticket. Teachout might do slightly better as the Democratic nominee, but much of New York is Republican, and being to the left of Cuomo is a limiting exercise in statewide races. If Cuomo falls in the September 9 primary because of corruption woes, Republicans will reap the benefit, not progressives. That’s why Democrats will almost certainly stick with Cuomo until it’s impossible to do so.