ALBANY — The demand by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Thursday that District Attorney Thomas Spota step down from office after he was accused of failing to prosecute possible criminal activity drew attention to a little-known power of a governor to remove a locally elected official from office.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office, however, refused to comment on whether it would consider the measure, which can be enacted if a local official commits malfeasance.
The state constitution provides a governor the power to remove a public official from office only after a public hearing. There is also a specific provision that allows a governor to remove a district attorney if he or she refuses to prosecute specific violations of the state constitution, but that doesn’t appear to fit the Suffolk County case.
Section 13 of the state constitution states, “The governor may remove any elective sheriff, county clerk, district attorney or register within the term for which he or she shall have been elected; but before so doing the governor shall give to such officer a copy of the charges against him or her and an opportunity of being heard in his or her defense.”
Former Gov. Mario Cuomo threatened to use the measure in 1988 against four Yonkers city councilmen who had blocked desegregating of housing ordered by the courts.
The last and perhaps only time the power was used was in New York was 1932. Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt removed New York County Sheriff Thomas M. “Tin Box” Farley from office as part of a Tammany Hall scandal. Roosevelt had also begun public corruption hearings that could have led to the unseating of New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, but Walker resigned before Roosevelt made a decision, according to research provided by the governor’s office in 1988 and reported by The New York Times.
The probe, called the Seabury investigations, was the basis of the musical “Fiorello!”