At first blush, this new New Yorker exposé adds yet another scandal to Andrew Cuomo’s ever-lengthening list of reasons to get impeached. But that’s only at first blush in a story sourced on the record by senior Obama administration officials who remained curiously silent about it for seven years.
Ronan Farrow reports that Cuomo attempted to use his political leverage to quash a Department of Justice corruption probe into his administration. The attempt rattled Obama officials, including Valerie Jarrett — at least in their telling:
In April, 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo placed a call to the White House and reached Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. Cuomo was, as one official put it, “ranting and raving.” He had announced that he was shuttering the Moreland Commission, a group that he had convened less than a year earlier to root out corruption in New York politics. After Cuomo ended the group’s inquiries, Preet Bharara, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, issued letters instructing commissioners to preserve documents and had investigators from his office interview key witnesses. On the phone with Jarrett, Cuomo railed against Bharara. “This guy’s out of control,” a member of the White House legal team briefed on the call that day recalled Cuomo telling Jarrett. “He’s your guy.”
Jarrett ended the conversation after only a few minutes. Any effort by the White House to influence investigations by a federal prosecutor could constitute criminal obstruction of justice. “He did, in fact, call me and raise concerns about the commission,” Jarrett told me. “As soon as he started talking, and I figured out what he was talking about, I shut down the conversation.” Although Cuomo fumed about Bharara’s efforts, he did not make any specific request before Jarrett ended the call. Nevertheless, Jarrett was alarmed and immediately walked to the office of the White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, to report the conversation. Ruemmler agreed that the call was improper, and told Jarrett that she had acted correctly in ending the conversation without responding to Cuomo’s complaints. “I thought it was highly inappropriate,” the member of the White House’s legal team told me. “It was a stupid call for him to make.” Ruemmler reported the incident to the Deputy Attorney General, James M. Cole, who also criticized the call. “He shouldn’t have been doing that. He’s trying to exert political pressure on basically a prosecution or an investigation,” Cole told me. “So Cuomo trying to use whatever muscle he had with the White House to do it was a nonstarter and probably improper.”
Cuomo’s outreach to the White House may have opened him up to sanction for violating state ethics rules and could be relevant in an ongoing impeachment inquiry by the New York State Assembly. “It’s highly inappropriate and potentially illegal,” Jennifer Rodgers, a former prosecutor in Bharara’s office and an adjunct clinical professor at N.Y.U. Law School, told me. Jessica Levinson, the director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute, added, “If he, in fact, called a U.S. Attorney’s bosses and implied, ‘Stop this guy from looking into me,’ that could easily amount to an impeachable offense.”
True, true … but for whom? Jonathan Allen asks the most pertinent question regarding the curious timing of this revelation:
Let me get this straight: for seven years, Obama administration White House officials sat on the story of Andrew Cuomo trying to get @PreetBharara reined in — a potential case of obstruction of justice by a sitting governor — and are making it public now.
Did they tell Bharara?
— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) August 10, 2021
Farrow’s report makes it clear that Bharara was informed of Cuomo’s action. Bharara was “alarmed” and DoJ officials thought it might be prosecutable, but …
White House officials at the time believed that prosecutors might want to interview Jarrett and assess whether the call had risen to the level of illegality. Instead, the Department of Justice notified Bharara. “Everybody basically just said we’re not going to do anything—we’re not going to stop Preet,” Cole said. “The investigation is the investigation, and I don’t care if Andrew Cuomo calls us or not.” Bharara’s office chose not to pursue charges, but he recalled being alarmed. “Andrew Cuomo has no qualms, while he’s under investigation by the sitting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, trying to call the White House to call me off,” Bharara told me. “Trump did that. That’s an extraordinary thing, from my perspective.”
The rest of Farrow’s report focuses on Cuomo but doesn’t touch on Allen’s question. Why did Bharara choose not to go after Cuomo for his conduct, or at least make it public so that the New York state legislature could review it? Why did it take seven years for Obama admin officials to talk about this, especially in the context of shutting down the Moreland Commission probe into Cuomo’s own administration?
Let’s not forget that Bharara later warned Cuomo about witness tampering in the probe, a couple of months after this episode:
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.”
And yet, even with all of these clear violations and abuses of power, Bharara never charged Cuomo with anything. Nor did the DoJ inform the state legislature, which might have had some interest in Cuomo after he shut down the Moreland Commission. Why not? And why did it take seven years for this story to come out as context over the later accusation of witness tampering in Bharara’s investigation of the Moreland Commission scandal?
Perhaps the state legislature will find out. At least at the moment, it seems as though some Obama administration officials are worried that they have already found this out and are pre-empting this revelation first. One has to wonder why the Obama DoJ refused to go after Cuomo after noting his abuse of power and attempts to corruptly shut down Bharara’s probe. Was Cuomo too dangerous to them to enforce the law, or was it just that Cuomo was a Democrat?