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Assembly Speaker draws fire as he tries to tamp down tensions over Cuomo impeachment inquiry

New York State Assembly
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A member of the State Assembly impeachment inquiry committee said he’s concerned that the Cuomo Administration might be trying to intimidate potential witnesses in an ongoing investigation by the state’s attorney general on sexual harassment allegations against the governor.

Meanwhile, remarks by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie drew fire from the attorney representing one of the women who say Cuomo harassed them.

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Karen DeWitt
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie speaks to reporters about the ongoing impeachment inquiry into Gov. Andrew Cuomo on July 23, 2021.

The dispute began on Wednesday when Charles Lavine -- the chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which is overseeing the impeachment inquiry into Cuomo -- issued a stern warning to the governor’s communications director and senior aide Rich Azzopardi.

Lavine took issue with tweets that Azzopardi posted disparaging a union leader who broke with Cuomo as an “extortionist” and questioning the political motivations of Attorney General Tish James.

James is conducting an investigation into multiple allegations of sexual harassment against the governor, as well as accusations that the governor used staff to help him write and edit a memoir, for which he was paid $5.1 million.

Lavine said he previously warned Cuomo and his aides against intimidating potential witnesses or trying to retaliate against them, and he said Azzopardi’s attempts to demean James “undermine” the investigation and send “profoundly negative signals to witnesses.” Lavine warned that Azzopardi’s comments could have “severe repercussions” in terms of the Judiciary Committee's “consideration of the question of the impeachment of the governor."

Assemblyman Phil Steck, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he agrees, and said Azzopardi’s statements are a “major concern."

“Rich Azzopardi has a reputation of being a bomb thrower,” Steck said. “And in this situation, it’s just completely inappropriate.”

Cuomo’s private attorney issued a spirited response, saying Azzopardi’s tweets were not an attempt to suppress witness testimony. Attorney Paul Fishman said it is Lavine who is acting inappropriately by threatening to punish the governor’s aides for “speaking about important issues of public policy.” He also said Lavine is attempting to quell Azzopardi’s right to free speech under the federal and state constitutions.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who attended an unrelated event in Schenectady with Steck, said he’s trying to stay neutral until the impeachment inquiry concludes.

“I’m going to wait until the results of that inquiry, and I’ll comment then,” Heastie told reporters.

James, whose investigators interviewed Cuomo on July 17, is believed to be nearing the final stages of her probe. But Heastie said if the final report finds evidence of wrongdoing, that alone may not trigger impeachment proceedings.

“I believe that it should be a part of the Assembly's review, but I don't know if the report itself, alone, without the conclusion of the Judiciary Committee's work, should rise to an action," Heastie said.

Those remarks drew the ire of Debra Katz, the attorney representing Charlotte Bennett, one of the women who say Cuomo sexually harassed her. Katz accused Heastie of actively obstructing effort to hold Cuomo responsible for his alleged actions, saying his remarks are a “betrayal of the duties of his office” and demonstrates his loyalty to the governor over the “rule of law or to the women who have been victimized.” Katz demanded that Heastie retract his statement.

Heastie spokesman Michael Whyland said in a tweet that Heastie’s remarks were “mischaracterized.”

Whyland said the speaker simply wants James' report to be part of the impeachment inquiry, but he said the Assembly is also looking into other allegations against the governor, including the book deal.

Critics have said the Assembly impeachment inquiry, which began in early March, is taking too long, and that Assembly Democrats are stalling to provide cover for Cuomo. Steck says that’s not true. He said the impeachment inquiry recently gained subpoena power, and the law firm hired to carry out the investigation is now taking sworn testimony from witnesses.

“I certainly would believe, hope and expect that we would be done with our work in the Judiciary Committee before the end of the year,” Steck said. “And hopefully considerably before that time.”

A probe by the U.S. Attorney for Eastern New York over allegations that Cuomo and his aides covered up the number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 is also ongoing.