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Assembly set to interview prospective AG candidates

Karen Dewitt
WRVO News (file photo)

The New York State Assembly is set to interview potential replacements Tuesday for former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned May 8 in a domestic violence scandal. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also trying to put his stamp on the selection process.

The initial list of 16 names is dwindling over fears that being viewed as the insider candidate might hurt their chances to win voters in a primary or general election later on this year.

Among those who were being mentioned as a possible replacement was former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who brought corruption charges that led to the convictions of two former majority party legislative leaders, as well as Cuomo’s former closest aide, before Bharara was fired by President Donald Trump.

Bharara, who because of the criminal cases against the lawmakers is not exactly popular among legislators, summed up his discomfort with the process in his podcast, Stay Tuned with Preet.

“It’s unclear what rules they will be following, it’s unclear how fair that process will be,” said Bharara, who added that he’s had some experience dealing with the state Legislature as a prosecutor.

“It does have the look and feel of a backroom deal,” Bharara said. “And that’s not something I want to be a part of right now.”

Bharara also said that he’s not sure he wants to be attorney general, saying running for office involves compromises and that “politics is not my cup of tea.” But he did not completely rule out a run.

Others who have dropped out of the interviews include Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney. New York City Public Advocate Tish James said initially that she would seek an interview, but announced on May 11 that she would not participate, though she is not ruling out a run.

Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood is among those still on the list, and she is scheduled to be interviewed on Tuesday and Wednesday. She was formerly the state’s solicitor general and was originally appointed in 2007 by Andrew Cuomo when he was the state’s attorney general.

Underwood is the lone candidate who is not interested in running for the office, and could serve as a caretaker until the new term for an attorney general begins in January.

Cuomo is among those advocating for Underwood to be chosen as an interim attorney general.

“She's a top-flight professional,” Cuomo said in an interview on the cable news channel New York 1 over the weekend, noting that Underwood would provide “continuity.”

But Cuomo also wants to put his stamp on the process. The major political parties hold their conventions beginning on May 21, and the governor said that he wants to conduct his own interviews of potential Democratic choices.

“How do you see the office? What would you pursue as attorney general?” Cuomo said he’d ask the candidates. “What would you continue? What would you not continue? What cases would you have brought that Eric Schneiderman didn't bring? What cases would you continue that Schneiderman brought?”

That drew criticism from Marc Molinaro, Cuomo’s likely Republican opponent in the governor’s race.

Molinaro said it would be a conflict of interest for Cuomo to interview candidates since the attorney general’s office is investigating former Cuomo associate and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute head Alain Kaloyeros on potential bid-rigging and pay-to-play corruption charges. Kaloyeros used to lead Cuomo’s statewide economic development efforts.

In a statement, Molinaro said any prospective attorney general candidate who respects the office and the separation of powers should “tell the governor where to stick his interview.”

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, said while she appreciates the Assembly’s decision to hold public interviews to fill the vacant AG post, no one should be trying to game the selection process. And she agrees that if Cuomo interviews potential candidates, it could be seen as a conflict of interest.

Lerner said New York state government has had “corruption scandal after corruption scandal,” and elected officials should not try to interfere in the process and “try to put their thumb on the scale.”

“To deny voters a real choice is very objectionable and damaging to our democracy,” Lerner said.

Lerner said when Cuomo was running for his first term as governor in 2010, he did not endorse an AG candidate, and the contest was decided in a five-way primary that Schneiderman won. She said the governor should also refrain from endorsing anyone this year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.