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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

With Paterson out of race, Cuomo's turn for scrutiny

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo speaks during

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference about recalled Toyota cars. (Feb. 24, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Often, when state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo puts off commenting on certain explosive issues, he cites an intense focus on his current elected job.

State law gives Cuomo wide discretion in defining that job - an important fact to know as the Democratic front-runner for governor draws new scrutiny and attention.

Before quitting the election race Friday, Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson asked Cuomo to probe the controversial role the governor and his security detail played in a domestic-abuse case involving Paterson aide David W. Johnson.

Cuomo agreed. That was unsurprising. Since taking office in 2007, Cuomo - more than his recent predecessors - has steered his office into the middle of some very hot Capitol issues.

Long before Cuomo came along, the office's agenda shifted sharply with the occupant. Eliot Spitzer used it to build his reputation as sheriff of Wall Street. Before him, Dennis Vacco made high-profile child-pornography arrests. Robert Abrams played up consumer rights.

In 2006, primary rival Thomas Suozzi slammed Spitzer as crusading on Wall Street, but not on Albany's State Street.

Succeeding the Spitzer crew, however, Cuomo's professional staff has effectively made its presence felt inside the Capitol.

State executive law, crafted long ago, gives an attorney general a wide mandate. In its broadest declaration, it says the AG should "protect the interests of the state."

Predictably, the battle lines are forming around Cuomo's choices. Privately, Cuomo-phobes will cynically deride his official actions as a Machiavellian "destabilization program" for potential power rivals. His admirers will proclaim his integrity and independence and renewed emphasis on public-integrity issues.

On the campaign trail recently, Paterson, Suffolk Executive Steve Levy and Republican candidate Rick Lazio all noted - with varying pungency - that an attorney general gets to pursue policy goals without having to reach tough deals with legislature. But his backers cite several legislative bills, such as a law authorizing consolidation of special taxing districts, that he got passed through tricky legislative negotiations.

Among his higher-profile involvements within the Capitol orbit:

 

  • Cuomo issued a widely read report in Spitzer's drive to damage then-Sen. (and since convicted) Joseph Bruno.

 

 

  • Cuomo's office pursued players in the corruption-stained tenure of ex-Comptroller Alan Hevesi, including Ray Harding, the defunct Liberal Party's ex-boss who backed Cuomo for governor in 2002. Harding pleaded guilty to securities fraud.

 

 

  • His investigators have honed in on a previously probed health corporation run by Sen. Pedro Espada (D-Bronx).

 

Along the way, friction flared between Cuomo and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The two may well be ticket-mates in November.

In months ahead, the fights Cuomo picked, the office he molded, and the impact he has had - from his versatile platform - take center stage.

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