When he bowed out of the race for a full term Friday, Gov. David A. Paterson raised his right hand, looked directly into the television cameras and said he never abused his office.
Paterson was addressing reports suggesting he misused his position by contacting a woman who had filed a complaint against a top aide - a situation that precipitated Paterson's dropping out of the race.
Whether Paterson violated criminal law in his alleged phone call to the woman, who reportedly didn't appear in civil court and saw her case dismissed, could be difficult to determine, said legal experts. Some also said Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who until Friday was Paterson's rival for the governor's job, should have recused himself from the investigation his office is pursuing.
If Paterson contacted the woman in an effort to get her to withdraw her civil complaint or avoid a court appearance, it could be viewed as obstruction of justice, said Manhattan defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Under state law, obstruction of governmental administration is a misdemeanor.
Paterson reportedly called the woman, after she filed a police report alleging Paterson aide David Johnson had ripped off her clothing and thrown her into a mirror, to ask if she was OK and supposedly said, according to her lawyer, "If you need me, I'm here for you." Paterson's office has said it was the woman who placed the call.
Lefcourt said if Paterson knew the woman personally it might shield him from legal problems. "If that is all that is said, it sounds like somebody simply concerned for her well being," Lefcourt said.
But if Paterson went further and tried to vouch for Johnson, then the governor would come closer to the line of potential witness tampering, also a misdemeanor, Lefcourt said.
Joseph DiBenedetto, a Manhattan criminal defense lawyer, said the reports of Paterson's action indicate he crossed the line. "In my opinion, not only is what he did unethical but possibly criminal," DiBenedetto said.
But attorney Paul Schechtman, who served as criminal justice coordinator under Gov. George Pataki, doesn't think Paterson committed any crime.
"I would say it was a most ill-advised phone conversation but not a violation of criminal law," Schechtman said.
Paterson's withdrawal as a candidate also made it easier ethically for Cuomo to probe the governor, Schechtman said. Professor Stephen Gillers of New York University School of Law agreed, saying that until Paterson's withdrawal Cuomo had an "airtight conflict" of interest.
However, Lefcourt said he remained uncomfortable with Cuomo's involvement.
"There is no one who stands to gain more from a negative result than Cuomo," he said.
A spokesman for Cuomo declined to comment.