Cuomo impeachment probe launches -- but don't expect quick action

Alternate headline: Bloggers celebrate content-rich environment for 2021. New York legislators are trying to tamp down expectations of action even as they launch a formal impeachment probe of Andrew Cuomo, but this timeline raises questions of its own:

The impeachment investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo will likely take “months” to complete — because there are so many allegations against him, the head of the Assembly Judiciary Committee said Tuesday.

“Given the breadth and seriousness of the issues under investigation, we expect that the timing will be in terms of months, rather than weeks,” committee Chairman Charles Lavine (D-Long Island) said during the panel’s first meeting on the matter.

Should this really take “months” rather than weeks, though? Perhaps, as the “breadth and seriousness” of this impeachment probe relates to both scandals Cuomo faces at the moment. The panel will investigate the claims of sexual harassment and assault coming from eight women, including a current member of Cuomo’s staff. That same matter is currently under investigation by state AG Letitia James.

It also will take testimony on the scandal with a body count — the cover-up of data from Cuomo’s nursing-home policy in the pandemic. And just to complete the hat trick, it looks like the committee has a third scandal to pursue:

During his opening remarks, Lavine said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) “has directed us to examine all credible allegations, including but not limited to — and here the key is, including but not limited to — did the governor use his office to sexually harass or assault women who were his employees?”

“Did he direct staff to unlawfully withhold or misrepresent information that was required to be reported to the state legislature, or other governmental entities regarding the effects of COVID-19 on New Yorkers?”

Lavine added: “Did he direct or have knowledge of executive personnel withholding information regarding safety concerns about New York state bridges, or did he direct or have knowledge of executive personnel, attempting to suppress related investigations?”

The latter came to light a couple of weeks ago, and also involves a potential cover-up. A whistleblower came forward to reveal shoddy work and potential safety hazards on the Mario Cuomo bridge, the Albany Times-Union reported two weeks ago, and alleged that the state had tried to keep it quiet. It’s not clear just how close this comes to Andrew Cuomo, however; the AT-U report doesn’t paint the governor as much of a player in that alleged scheme.

For now, though, the impeachment panel appears to be prioritizing the sexual misconduct issues. They took the unusual step of publicly warning Cuomo and his office not to intimidate witnesses or attempt to shape their eventual testimony:

At the hearing Tuesday, Lavine said he took the step of formally warning Cuomo to avoid any actions that might intimidate potential witnesses. The governor’s administration has been criticized for its attempts to attack the credibility of Lindsey Boylan, a former aide who became the first woman to accuse Cuomo of harassment.

“I served on the governor several days ago a notice of nonrelation,” Lavine said. “In other words, putting the governor on notice that he and his employees and allies should take no steps toward intimidating any witness or any potential witness.”

At the same time, however, the panel itself is still defending their decision to hire a law firm with connections to Cuomo. They might have a tough time making this sale with witnesses, even with a “notice of nonrelation”:

Multiple members gave the firm’s attorneys a chance to defend themselves against criticisms that their selection was to laden with conflicts of interest. Cuomo ally Dennis Glazer worked for Davis Polk as recently as 2012, and at least two of the governor’s accusers have argued that this diminishes its credibility as an independent investigator.

“We have a very robust process within Davis Polk for ensuring that for any assignment that we take on, that we do not begin that matter with any conflicts of interest,” attorney Angela Burgess said. “We do a search throughout the firm and through a management committee to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest that would either as a matter of ethics or appearance create an issue. And we embarked on that process here and concluded that there was no conflict.”

I guess we’ll see, but this odd attempt at a comprehensive and singular impeachment process might be seen as a way to tie everything up for longer than necessary. Why not have separate tracks for each of these issues? Or better yet, let James and the Department of Justice continue their investigations first into the sexual misconduct and nursing-home cover-up? The committee could have also chosen to do its own work on either or both rather than bring in a law firm with connections to the target of its probe. The potential for slow-walking or paralysis of these probes is at least non-zero, as is the potential that some of the members of this panel might have that in mind. The longer Cuomo goes in office, the better his chances of outlasting the scandals. Just look at Virginia to see how well that strategy works.