Bowing to political reality, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo Thursday removed himself from the investigation of Gov. David A. Paterson and appointed a former top state judge as an independent special prosecutor.
In an hourlong telephone news conference, Cuomo, an expected candidate for governor, explained that he had appointed ex-New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye to avoid any suggestion that politics was influencing the case.
"It is incredibly important to all of us that the public has 100 percent confidence that this investigation is being done properly," said Cuomo.
Working without pay, Kaye has complete power to control the investigation, using the staff of the attorney general's office, said Cuomo.
Cuomo said the investigation into whether Paterson tried to squelch a domestic violence complaint against his aide David Johnson and had lied to state integrity officials over the use of Yankees World Series tickets was "further complicated in this case due to the political circumstances and atmosphere in this case."
Johnson's attorney, Oscar Michelen, welcomed Kaye's appointment and said Cuomo should have stepped aside at the outset of the probe. But he said he was troubled by Kaye's reliance on Cuomo's staff to continue the probe.
"We will cooperate with Judge Kaye and the [attorney general's office] and look forward to a prompt and favorable conclusion to both investigations," said Paterson's lawyer, Theodore Wells Jr.
Despite Paterson's recent withdrawal from the governor's race, Cuomo had come under criticism recently for overseeing the Paterson cases at a time when he was also close to announcing his own gubernatorial campaign.
Cuomo indicated that had Paterson resigned from office, the criminal probe might have become "moot."
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Poll, said Cuomo's involvement in the probe had become a political liability. Recent poll data, he said, showed Cuomo's approval rating dropped from 67 to 54 percent over a two-week period.
For a politician who traditionally has remained separate from intrigue in Albany, it was time to step aside, Miringoff said.
"He has been able to pick his moments," Miringoff said. "This investigation has brought him into a process in Albany that is very unpopular at the moment."
Cuomo said his preliminary probe had found that there were "credible issues to be resolved" and that an "immediate resolution of those issues appears not to be at hand."
Asked to explain those remarks, Cuomo avoided specifics, but said, "We are making the decision that they do merit investigation."
He also wouldn't say how credible he found the individual allegations against Paterson, Johnson and certain state police officials who also contacted the alleged abuse victim.
With Reid J. Epstein
and Will Van Sant