New York State

Impeachment inquiry will continue for “months”

The Assembly Judiciary Committee is in no hurry to finish its ongoing investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Lavine, who will be overseeing the impeachment inquiry.

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Lavine, who will be overseeing the impeachment inquiry. Artie Raslich/Office of Nassau County Executive Laura Curran

Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces allegations of sexual misconduct from multiple women. Reporting showed his administration hid the true extent of COVID-19 nursing home deaths. His staffers seemingly retaliated against one of his accusers in plain sight. Nearly every influential Democrat in the state has called on the governor to resign, though he has denied wrongdoing. While the list of alleged misconduct continues to grow, there is a clear upside for a governor who is clearly looking to buy some time as he fights for his political life.

A Tuesday meeting of the Assembly Judiciary Committee highlighted how the more accusations the governor faces, the longer it will take for Assembly Democrats to conclude an ongoing inquiry into his possible impeachment. That means talk about removing him from office will likely stretch into the summer.

“Given the breadth and seriousness of the issues under investigation, we expect that the timing will be in terms of months rather than weeks,” Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Lavine said Tuesday morning. “There is very little precedent for impeachment in New York, we are mindful of the due process necessary to ensure the fairness of this process to everyone, the victims, the witnesses and the governor, and to do so in a transparent manner, so that all New Yorkers are in.”

He told members of the committee that the inquiry conducted by attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell will consider four overarching issues. There is the litany of outstanding allegations of sexual harassment against the governor. Top aides like Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa reportedly covered up the number of nursing home residents who later died of COVID-19 in hospitals. Reporting by the Times Union has highlighted potential safety issues with the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. Then there is the matter of the administration releasing details of the personnel file of Manhattan borough president candidate Lindsey Boylan, a former gubernatorial aide who first accused him of sexual harassment in December. Lavine said Tuesday the purview of the ongoing investigation could expand depending on whether additional allegations are made against the governor.

Some members of the Legislature say that lawmakers should consider impeachment immediately considering what is already publicly known about the governor and ongoing scandals, especially considering how delays in the investigatory process appear to be helping Cuomo’s strategy for political survival. “This is kicking the can down the road,” Brian Romero, a spokesperson for Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas, said in a statement following the Judiciary Committee meeting. “He is using government resources to cover himself politically and is no longer effective to govern and should resign of his own accord. Because he refuses to, she is ready to vote for impeachment now.” Some lawmakers have aired similar grievances, though a critical mass of Assembly Democrats appear to remain in favor of letting the ongoing inquiry play out alongside an investigation into alleged misconduct overseen by state Attorney General Letitia James. Black lawmakers in particular have been especially vocal about not rushing to conclusions about the allegations against the governor, which has increased pressure on Assembly leaders to follow a deliberative process that is slower than many Cuomo critics want.

The committee is approaching this inquiry similar to how grand juries work in the criminal justice system. Documents, witness testimony and other evidence will be discussed in “executive session,” Lavine said during a Tuesday morning meeting of the committee when the attorneys answered questions about their nascent investigation – or “review” as the governor calls it. Members of the committee from both parties signaled their agreement with this approach, though it means limiting public knowledge about the investigation. “We have an obligation as public officials and as attorneys to maintain the strictest confidentiality when we get to the work of this committee,” Assembly Member Michael Montesano, the ranking Republican on the committee, said during the meeting. And like a grand jury, the goal of the committee inquiry is to decide whether there is enough evidence to justify a trial.

Impeachment is a political process, as many Democrats noted during the impeachment inquiries against then-President Donald Trump. But it has some similarities to a criminal justice proceeding. A majority of members of the Assembly would have to approve one or more articles of impeachment against the governor to make Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul acting governor. The New York Court for the Trial of Impeachments, composed of state senators and members of the judiciary, would then hold proceedings to decide whether or not to permanently remove Cuomo from office. If two-thirds of them vote in favor, then Cuomo would become the first governor to be impeached since Gov. William Sulzer more than a century ago. Talk of removing Sulzer from office began even before he was elected in 1912, but it took several months for accusations of illicit fundraising to lead to his impeachment in August 1913. He was removed from office following a three-week trial in October 1913.

The experience of Sulzer, the first impeachment trial of Trump and past proceedings in other states show that removing an elected official in office usually takes time. Trump’s first impeachment inquiry took three months, the Senate acquitted him nearly two months after that. More than two months passed in between the December 2008 arrest of then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his January 2009 impeachment and removal from office.
While the New York Assembly Judiciary Committee could choose to move faster and be more open with its proceedings by holding additional public meetings in the weeks ahead, it appears that the weight of history is making Lavine lean toward keeping many of its deliberations secret in order to protect witnesses and ensure the governor receives due process. That will mean reporters and the public at-large will likely struggle to keep up with the latest on the Assembly’s progress, but Lavine said Tuesday that time will be his ultimate judge in managing the inquiry. “The impeachment question is of tremendous significance,” he said at the meeting. “I can’t help but think that 108 years from now and even longer than 108 years from now, people will be concerned and will study what it is that we as a state Legislature are doing.”