ALBANY — Taking a historic step, the State Assembly on Thursday launched an impeachment investigation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, which could lead to just the second impeachment of a governor in state history and the first since 1913.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said the 107 Assembly Democrats who control the chamber decided to authorize a probe following the latest sexual harassment allegations against the third-term governor.
"The reports of accusations concerning the governor are serious," Heastie said after a three-hour closed-door meeting with his Democratic colleagues. "The committee will have the authority to interview witnesses, subpoena documents and evaluate evidence, as is allowed by the New York State Constitution."
Cuomo, in his 11th year in office, is facing an attorney general's investigation of sexual harassment allegations by six women against the governor, as well as a federal Department of Justice probe into how his administration handled COVID-19 in nursing homes.
The governor has denied any wrongdoing or touching anyone inappropriately. He has said there is "no way" he will resign and urged New Yorkers to wait for Attorney General Letitia James' conclusion and "then we can have a discussion about the facts."
Heastie said Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), the chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, will lead the investigation.
"I have the utmost faith that Assembly member Lavine and the members of the committee will conduct an expeditious, full and thorough investigation," Heastie said. He added the Assembly process won't interfere with an ongoing probe of the sexual harassment allegations overseen by James.
If the Assembly brings charges, the State Senate would hold the trial and vote to either convict or acquit the 63-year-old governor, who, less than a year ago, was gaining national acclaim for his handling of the pandemic and writing a book about leadership.
James issued a statement saying her investigation will continue "regardless" of the impeachment inquiry.
"Today’s action by the New York state legislature will have no bearing on our independent investigation into these allegations against Governor Cuomo," James said. "Our investigation will continue."
Yet these aren't the only high-level investigations the embattled governor's administration is facing: The U.S. Department of Justice and FBI are investigating the administration's handling of COVID-19 and nursing homes.
The Assembly decision to launch an impeachment inquiry came less than 24 hours after the published report of the latest and most serious allegation made against Cuomo. The Times Union of Albany reported Wednesday that Cuomo fondled an unidentified staffer at the Executive Mansion. The governor, through a spokesman, denied the account, saying, "I have never done anything like this."
The newspaper reported the Cuomo administration itself reported the incident to law enforcement. The Albany Police Department reportedly acknowledged being notified but said no complaint had been filed nor had it launched any investigation as yet.
Thursday morning, 59 Democrats in the Senate and Assembly issued a letter saying Cuomo should resign. Shortly after that, Heastie announced the closed-door meeting that eventually led to the announcement of the impeachment inquiry.
Of the 15 Long Island Democratic members in the legislature, just one signed the letter: Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre).
Democrats hold more than two-thirds of the seats in the Senate and Assembly, giving them control of the agenda. Republicans, many of whom have called for Cuomo’s ouster, have limited influence.
If the Assembly eventually brings charges, state law says Cuomo would be prohibited immediately from exercising any of the duties of his office, according Karl Sleight, a private attorney and former head of the state ethics commission. That is a significant difference from federal law — then-President Donald Trump was able to continue in office while impeached and was eventually acquitted by the U.S. Senate.
New York statutes dictate the lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul of Buffalo, would have authority to exercise gubernatorial duties immediately upon any impeachment charges being filed against Cuomo, Sleight said.
The lone New York governor impeached was William Sulzer in 1913. The Democrat was brought to a State Senate trial after falling out with the powerful Tammany Hall Democrats who helped get him elected. He was convicted of "corrupt conduct" for signing false statements about campaign contributions and spending.
Jay Jacobs, the state and Nassau County Democratic chairman, issued a statement saying, "With the preponderance of these allegations I agree with Speaker Heastie that now is the time for the Legislature to commence its own review of these matters as a part of its constitutional responsibilities."
Jacobs also said he will hold a special meeting of county-level Democratic leaders to get their views and those of people outside the Albany political bubble.
"I understand some people want him to resign and I understand their views. But there's no unanimity here," Jacobs said in an interview. "I want to talk to county chairs. I want to know what they are hearing … I don't want the party to get divided over this."
The speed of the turn of events was startling.
Four days earlier, Heastie, while questioning Cuomo’s effectiveness in office, stopped short of calling for his resignation. Heastie’s view signaled to legislators and political observers the Assembly wanted to wait for the attorney general to complete her investigation.
Heastie’s view at the time stood in contrast to his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), who had said Cuomo "must resign." She cited not only the harassment allegations but also a federal investigation into the Cuomo administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes. Stewart-Cousins said: "We need to govern without daily distraction."
The letter from the nearly five dozen Democratic state legislators echoed that sentiment.
"In the meantime, the governor needs to put the people of New York first," the group said. "We have a lieutenant governor who can step in and lead for the remainder of the term, and this is what is best for New Yorkers in this critical time. It is time for Governor Cuomo to resign."