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Assembly promises open process to pick new AG within 2 weeks

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the Capitol in

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the Capitol in Albany on March 30. Credit: Albany Times Union / Will Waldron

ALBANY — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Wednesday promised public hearings within two weeks to select an attorney general to replace Eric T. Schneiderman, who resigned in disgrace Monday night.

“We’re going to have public hearings; you guys will be able to come and witness, and I think this is actually a good thing,” Heastie told reporters after the latest closed-door meeting on the selection process.

The legislature has the power to fill the job vacated by Schneiderman, whom four women have accused of physical abuse. The state solicitor general, Barbara Underwood, has been named acting attorney general, but the legislature has the right to pick someone permanent to serve out the remaining eight months of Schneiderman’s term.

Heastie said Wednesday that Underwood will be invited to submit a resume and seek the legislature’s appointment. He said the Assembly’s Democratic majority remained focused Wednesday on establishing the process for a choice.

“I have asked people to not discuss candidates,” Heastie said.

The selection process as described by Heastie would be an unusually open procedure for such a major exercise of power in Albany, where most negotiations are behind closed doors and most legislation is preordained well before it gets to floor debate.

But given that an attorney general can investigate corruption in state government, some officials argue that it’s important to remove politics from the selection process.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has no constitutional role in selecting Schneiderman’s successor, said Wednesday that he wants voters, not legislators, to make the choice.

So does Assemb. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island), who said Wednesday that she had submitted a bill that would require that voters — not the legislature — decide who should fill a statewide office like attorney general.

“It’s supposed to be an independent office,” she said in an interview. “How can it be independent if it is members of the legislature that give them their job?”

Malliotakis takes a dim view of the process Heastie described, in which a vetting committee of Assembly and Senate members will review resumes and interview candidates.

“Nothing in Albany is going to be un-politicized,” she said. “There’s going to be horse-trading, and there are going to be backroom deals.”

There is precedent for that concern. In 2007, when Comptroller Alan Hevesi resigned after a corruption arrest, the legislature chose one of its own, longtime and popular Assemb. Thomas DiNapoli (D-Great Neck). Other candidates on a short list were then-veteran Assemb. Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester) and Assemb. Alexander Grannis (D-Manhattan).

Back then, Gov. Eliot Spitzer called DiNapoli “thoroughly and totally unqualified.” Spitzer pushed for a public selection process involving candidates who were deeply grounded in the comptroller’s duties of public finance and pension investments. He wanted there to be at least one candidate who had Wall Street experience.

Today, the list of possible successors to Schneiderman includes several politicians, including Rep. Kathleen Rice, the former Nassau County district attorney; and Assemb. Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan), a leading voice for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.

Several legislators said Wednesday that the attorney general candidate with the most buzz in private conversations is Letitia James, the New York City public advocate and a former City Council member. James, a former counsel to politicians and former assistant attorney general and public defender, made it clear Tuesday that she is interested in the job.

“I have heard her name mentioned along with others,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D-Rochester), adding that there is no consensus.

Timeliness is a concern, because the state Democratic Committee holds its convention May 23-24 and can nominate up to four candidates to run for attorney general in the Democratic primary on Sept. 13.

The Republicans could field multiple candidates in their September primary, too. The main requirement for the job is to be a lawyer.

“I think people — for all the right reasons and some really self-serving reasons — will want to come up with the best person,” said former Assemb. John McEneny (D-Albany). “If it’s handled properly and the right person is chosen, people will say, ‘The constitution works.’ If not, you live with the results.”

With Vincent Barone

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