ALBANY — Just as a state attorney general's investigation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo moves to a pivotal stage, his administration is increasingly trying to question the credibility of the investigators.
A key state legislator has warned that could be read as an attempt to intimidate witnesses and it might have "severe repercussions" in the State Assembly’s impeachment probe. A political analyst called it a "Trumpian" tactic to try to undermine an investigation of the governor.
Cuomo, a Democrat, is facing multiple probes from different entities over sexual harassment claims, his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic and his $5.1 million memoir deal — issues being investigated separately by the state Attorney General Letitia James, the U.S. Department of Justice and a state Assembly impeachment committee.
The governor was set to give a deposition to attorney general investigators last Saturday, though officials haven’t confirmed it occurred.
As word of the deposition became news, top Cuomo Communications Director Rich Azzopardi accused James' office of leaking the story and suggested it was politically motivated. Later, he said on Twitter she might run for governor against Cuomo in 2022. He’s also accused Joon Kim, one of the lawyers hired by James to run the inquiry, of having a "well-known" bias and an "acrimonious history" with the governor.
Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), who leads the Assembly impeachment committee, fired off a letter calling the attacks an "obviously intimidating message to potential witnesses."
"I am extraordinarily concerned with respect to the governor's communications director's verbal attack against the attorney general," Lavine wrote to Cuomo. "Demeaning the attorney general in turn demeans the attorney general's investigation and at the same time sends an obviously intimidating message to potential witnesses."
The assemblyman said the remark on Twitter painting James as a potential candidate could have "severe repercussions."
The impeachment committee, which began work in March, is set to meet again Aug. 17.
Beth Garvey, Cuomo’s acting counsel, fired back: "There is a clear difference between actionable retaliation and protected speech and it is clear that the chairman doesn't understand the difference."
In a subsequent letter, attorney Paul J. Fishman, who represents Azzopardi and other members of the executive chamber in the probe, accused Lavine of attempting to "silence criticism of the investigation" and invoked Azzopardi's right to free speech.
An analyst said the administration’s tactics are clear, if a tad "Trumpian."
"They’re turning on her," said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, of the Cuomo administration and James. "As she gets closer [to finishing], the mantra is going to be it’s political. And it’s going to get louder. There’s a direct relation between the heat and their protest."
Last Saturday, Cuomo was slated to give a deposition to lawyers deputized by James. Experts said this was a sign the investigation could be nearing its final stages.
Though no officials confirmed the deposition occurred, records show the state helicopter traveling from Albany to Manhattan last Saturday and returning some 13 hours later.
When James’ probe began, Cuomo fought off calls for his resignation and asked New Yorkers to await the attorney general's findings, saying they should "respect" the investigation.
Now, his administration increasingly is trying to paint the investigation as politically motivated.
Azzopardi contended news about the deposition becoming public amounted to "more evidence of the transparent political motivation of the attorney general’s review." He accused James’ office of leaking the item.
He later tweeted James "may run against the governor" in 2022.
Further, he took aim at Kim, the former federal prosecutor whom James appointed to codirect the investigation. "Kim’s bias and acrimonious history with Governor Cuomo is a well-known fact," Azzopardi said.
Asked to expand, he noted Kim formerly was the top deputy of ex-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who investigated Cuomo’s handling of a state commission investigating corruption and oversaw a case that led to the conviction of Joseph Percoco, Cuomo’s former closest aide, on corruption charges.
James’ office hasn’t commented on Azzopardi’s claims. The attorney general herself previously said: "I’m not going to respond to any personal attacks on me and/or my office. I deal with over 1,800 employees who are professional. We come to work each and every day focusing on the law and the facts, and politics stops at the door. Anything other than that, obviously I ignore."