New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey say they share essential values as the sons of Sicilian women. Now they share something else: scandals that may block their aspirations for higher office.
Cuomo, who is running for re-election, is being attacked by opponents and watchdog groups after reports that aides interfered with an anti-corruption commission he created and then disbanded. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan is probing possible witness tampering, the New York Times reported yesterday. In New Jersey, Christie is the target of investigations after his allies shut down the George Washington Bridge, possibly as payback for a mayor who didn’t endorse him.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s noteworthy in that Cuomo is a national political figure trying to become a greater one,” said Columbia University professor Robert Shapiro, who specializes in U.S. politics. “The parallel here is Bridgegate and Christie. These kinds of things can have ramifications for people’s political careers.”
Both governors are considered potential presidential candidates. Christie, 51, who grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, has ramped up his travel as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He was in New Hampshire yesterday after visiting Iowa two weeks ago. Both are key states in the presidential selection process.
Unlike Christie, who confronted the scandal only after his re-election in November, Cuomo, is dealing with a steady drip of negative news and commentary about his handling of the commission as he gears up for a fall campaign that has been seen as a probable landslide. He holds a 35 percentage-point lead over Republican Rob Astorino and faces a possible Democratic primary challenge from Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout.
It was supposed to have been an easy ride for Cuomo, 56, to knock out the little-known Astorino, the county executive for Westchester. The son of three-term Governor Mario Cuomo, he’s set to release a memoir called “All Thing Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life” in September, a move that’s typical of politicians with national aspirations.
Instead, his 2010 pledge to clean up Albany by limiting contributions and establishing public financing of campaigns -- which he said would end the state’s role as a national punch line -- took a hit last week when the Times reported that Cuomo’s top aide sought to keep the panel known as a Moreland commission from investigating the governor’s real estate industry backers.
Cuomo shut down the commission in March because, he said, it had achieved its goal of getting lawmakers to agree to new ethics and campaign rules. That drew the ire of Bharara, who said nine months was too short for the panel to complete its work.
Now, it’s Cuomo who has become the late-night punch line. Last week, “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central roasted the governor over his shift from saying the panel would be independent to his 13-page riposte to the Times story. In it, he said the commission couldn’t have been free from his influence because he created it.
“Governor Cuomo may be like the boss at work that says, ‘Yeah, no, we’ll play hoops at lunch. You can go hard,’” host Jon Stewart said. “And then when Jimmy from accounting blocks his shot and drives his lane, he’s like, ’Hey, you’re not allowed to touch the ball because I started the game.’”
The Times reported yesterday that Bharara sent a letter to the commission asking that members advise his office of any attempts to influence or tamper with witness recollections. On July 28, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, a Republican and one of the commission’s co-chairmen, issued a statement that said “nobody ‘interfered’ with me or my co-chairs.” That followed the Times report last week, which cited an an e-mail he sent last year complaining about meddling by the governor’s office.
Cuomo told reporters this week that the e-mail cited is just “snippets” of conversation. Yesterday, he issued a statement saying he was aware of Bharara’s letter and that some news articles during the past week have contained “numerous inaccuracies.”
“We discussed these concerns with relevant parties,” Cuomo said in the statement. “Several members of the commission (district attorneys and a law school dean) issued personal statements to correct the public record. These statements reiterated comments they had made over the past year. As I believe the U.S. Attorney has made it clear that ongoing public dialogue is not helpful to his investigation, we will have no additional comment on the matter.”
Michael Koenig, an attorney at Hinckley Allen in Albany who is handling the commission’s dealings with Bharara, declined to comment.
Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor and one of the commissioners, said in a telephone interview that he received a copy of the letter described by the Times, though he declined to provide a copy.
“It’s unfortunate that the public has been diverted from the corruption in Albany to the fights within and about the commission,” Briffault said. “The commission was cut off and only given half the time to do its work.”
Astorino, 47, said in a radio interview yesterday that a special prosecutor should be appointed to investigate potential violations of state and federal law by the Cuomo administration.
“It is in many ways Cuomo’s Watergate, and it’s just starting,” Astorino said.
Teachout has already called for Cuomo to step down.
Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State, who served as a special adviser to the Moreland commission, said the complexity of the reports about Cuomo administration interference with the panel - - and their timing in the middle of summer -- may mean voters aren’t yet grasping the ramifications.
“Bridgegate is easy to understand,” Bartoletti said. “It may change as Labor Day comes and kids go back to school and there’s talk around the water cooler and on social media.”