Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirms that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sent a warning letter to the lawyer representing the now disbanded Moreland Act Commission on ethics, as first reported in The New York Times. In the letter, The Times says, Bharara threatened to investigate the governor’s aides and maybe even Cuomo himself for “possible obstruction of justice or witness tampering.”
After The Times reported that Cuomo’s aides tried to meddle in the ethics probes and get Moreland Act commissioners to rescind subpoenas that were issued to campaign donors and Cuomo associates, several commissioners simultaneously issued statements insisting that the commission was independent and that they were not coerced. Bharara, in his letter, according to the paper, warns the Cuomo administration about possible “attempts to influence or tamper with a witness’s recollection of events relevant to our investigation.”
Cuomo, defending himself against the accusations earlier in the week, used the words of one of the co-commissioners, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, to bolster the governor’s claim that any discussions his top aides had with the commission were merely friendly advice.
“He rejected the request,” Cuomo said. “The rejection is ipso facto, a statement of independence because he said no. ”
Fitzpatrick’s assertion that there was no interference by Cuomo aides seemed to directly contradict an email obtained by The Times in which the co-commissioner complained that he was not allowed to be independent in exercising judgment over on ongoing probes.
Opponents in the governor’s election race were quick to weigh in. Republican candidate for governor Rob Astorino says he thinks there’s more to come.
“This is Cuomo’s Watergate,” Astorino said. “This is not the end, this is the beginning of, I think, a lot of different areas and avenues that people are looking into.”
By mid-afternoon Thursday, Cuomo issued a statement that he says will be his final word on the matter. In it, Cuomo admits he received the letter from the U.S. attorney. The governor says he did speak to several members of the Moreland Commission, and they agreed to release personal statements that he said corrected “inaccuracies” that were in the initial New York Times report on the controversy. Cuomo says Bharara has made it clear that “on-going public dialogue is not helpful to his investigation,” and the governor says he will “have no additional comment on the matter.”
Albany Law School professor Vince Bonventre says the developments are significant.
“If you can believe the reports, some of the people on the commission are changing their story,” Bonventre said. “It certainly looks as though pressure was being applied to some of these commission members.”
But Bonventre says it would be premature to jump to conclusions about possible criminalities.
“It may not be that the governor has done anything illegal,” said Bonventre. “But he’s certainly at least aware of the political damage that this has been doing to him. And perhaps that’s the reason why he figures it’s wise to just not say anything anymore.”
But he says Bharara’s letter, and Cuomo’s response, does indicate that the investigation by the U.S. attorney is very serious.