Cuomo intervened one week after the lab was forced to close amid revelations of botched evidence testing that have cast a cloud over prosecutions. Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's attempt to choose a special prosecutor was shot down by a judge.
The governor directed Biben "to review the Nassau County police crime lab's testing procedures and protocols," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto told Newsday.
"Ellen Biben has the experience, independence and integrity to conduct this review in a thorough and objective manner," Vlasto said. "The inspector general's office also has the existing and necessary resources to conduct this review without additional costs to the taxpayer."
Vlasto said Cuomo consulted with Rice and County Executive Edward Mangano before announcing his decision.
"I concur with the governor's swift action that ensures a proper and thorough investigation will be conducted in an expeditious manner," Mangano said.
"We are pleased that Gov. Cuomo has demonstrated such swift action and we applaud his decision as a clear sign that he is on the same page with the DA in seeking the absolute truth in this case," said Rice spokeswoman Carole Trottere.
Judge rejected Rice's choice
Cuomo's move came a day after State Supreme Court Justice William Donnino rejected Rice's request that he approve her choice of a special district attorney to investigate the crime lab. Rice wanted the probe conducted by Eric Dinallo, a former assistant attorney general now in private practice in Manhattan.
But Donnino said in a written opinion that it should be up to Cuomo to name a special prosecutor. The judge suggested the governor could instruct state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to head the probe. Rice said that while she disagreed with Donnino, she would ask Cuomo to name a prosecutor.
It was not immediately clear Friday whether Rice had already followed through with the request, or if the governor acted on his own.
Biben will not be a special prosecutor. But Biben's office gives her the power and all the tools she will need to investigate the crime lab, Vlasto said.
Known and suspected foul-ups in lab analysis of evidence have raised questions about thousands of drug- and alcohol-impaired driving cases prosecuted by the district attorney's office dating back to 2007.
A national accrediting organization placed the lab on probation in December. It was the second time the lab had been placed on probation.
Cuomo named Biben as inspector general when he took office Jan. 1. Previously, when Cuomo was attorney general, Biben served as his special deputy attorney general for public integrity, supervising fraud and corruption investigations.
She was a lead prosecutor in the recently concluded case against political consultant Hank Morris, who was sentenced to up to four years in prison for his role in an influence-peddling scandal involving the state pension fund.
Deputy rackets bureau chief
Biben also served for more than 10 years as an assistant Manhattan district attorney, the last five as deputy chief of the rackets bureau.
William Kephart, president of the Nassau County Criminal Courts Bar Association, said Cuomo's choice "seems logical and appropriate."
Marc Gann, president of the Nassau County Bar Association, said, "I would tend to think that the inspector general would be an independent evaluator." But Gann said he believes the state attorney general's office would have been the "ideal office" to conduct the probe because of its experience in this kind of work.
With Keith Herbert