Investigating Power: Will Resigning In Disgrace Protect Cuomo From Prosecutors?

Two weeks ago, as Governor Andrew Cuomo faced multiple allegations of wrongdoing, he vowed to fight on. Everyone who knew him, from Albany reporters, to political analysts, to his closest advisers and allies were certain of one thing: Cuomo wasn’t going anywhere. 

Then, a report from the New York Attorney General Letitia James found he had sexually harassed or assaulted eleven women. The report was as astonishing as it was specific, finding that Cuomo had engaged in “sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment” and that his office unlawfully retaliating against one of his accusers. 

Exactly one week later, Cuomo boarded a helicopter, traveled to Manhattan from Albany, stepped to a microphone, and threw in the towel.

“I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is, if I step aside and let government get back to governing. And, therefore, that’s what I’ll do,” he said, gesturing in a casual way that belied his stated meaning. “Kathy Hochul, my lieutenant governor, is smart and competent. This transition must be seamless.”

With his resignation, Cuomo, who transfers power to Hochul when he officially leaves his role at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, may hope to deflate the pressure that was intensifying with the release of the Attorney General’s report.

Those findings put increased pressure on Cuomo to resign, with even President Joe Biden saying he should step down. It propelled the State Assembly to take moves toward impeachment. And, most significantly, it left Cuomo with few allies.

Impeachment Ex Post Facto: A No Go

The question now, as Cuomo steps off, is whether the many investigations that counseled Cuomo to resign will follow him, trailing him from Albany, haunting him beyond the office. Or can he expect to glide, free and clear, to a chapter of reinvention?

There are several unresolved matters: The investigation into whether the Cuomo administration deflated the number of deaths that occurred in the New York State nursing homes during COVID; allegations around whether or not the governor misused state resources when writing and publishing his book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic;” and, of course, the allegations from eleven women that he sexually harassed or assaulted them during his time in office.

The New York State legislature was on its way towards its first impeachment of a sitting governor in 100 years when Cuomo announced he would step down. (William Sulzer was the first, and to date only, New York governor to be impeached. He was convicted on articles of impeachment and removed from office in October 1913, a mere 8 months after taking office). 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said that — despite finding “credible evidence” relating to some of the women’s accusations, he will no longer move to impeach Cuomo, now that he has resigned. Although some Republican and left-leaning Democrat lawmakers pushed back, Heastie has held firm, saying he believes lawmakers don’t have the constitutional authority to impeach a governor who is no longer in office. 

In fairness to all sides, it is an unanswered question without any real precedent

But at this point, there is no impeachment proceeding. So, with his resignation, Cuomo it seems, has dodged the impeachment bullet.

Investigating Power: Past as Prologue

Beyond politics, there is also surprisingly little precedent for pursuing legal investigations, much less prosecution, after a disgraced executive leaves office.

This implosion of a governorship amidst allegations of sexual misconduct or potential criminality—or both—is actually getting to be more routine than shocking in New York State. In 2008, Eliot Spitzer, a former prosecutor and the former Attorney General for the state, as well as a soaring political star nationally, was ensnared by a federal wiretap in a prostitution scandal and accused by the authorities of violating the anti-money laundering provisions of the federal Bank Secrecy Act. Two days after the charges came to light, he gave a news conference in Manhattan, with his then-wife Silda Spitzer by his side.

Eliot Spitzer looks down while frowning with wife Silda with a serious expression next to him

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Eliot Spitzer announcing his resignation on March 12, 2008, with then-wife Silda by his side

Stephen Chernin/AP/Shutterstock

“From whom much is given, much is expected,” he said quoting Luke Chapter 12, verse 48, “I have been given much — the love of my family, the faith and trust of the people of New York, and the chance to lead this state. I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me. To every New Yorker — and to all those who believed in what I tried to stand for — I sincerely apologize.”

With that apology Spitzer deflated the official appetite for prosecution. He was never criminally charged. And his resignation opened the door for the state’s first Black governor, David Paterson, who was the scion of political luminary Basil Paterson, a State Senator from Harlem, and Secretary of State under Governor Hugh Carey. 

But the younger Paterson, while exceeding his father’s wishes for his oldest son, also left the governor’s mansion in a haze of scandal, although a far less salacious one than his predecessor or his successor. Paterson was accused of witness tampering in a staffer’s domestic abuse case and improper solicitation of five Yankees tickets. Still, Paterson also was not charged, quietly serving out his term and avoiding criminal prosecution,  though On December 20, 2010, the Commission on Public Integrity found that Paterson had lied about accepting five free World Series tickets and fined him $62,125

While on the subject of public integrity, it is also worth noting that New York Attorney General Letitia James essentially holds her office because Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general in 2018, was accused by four women of intimate physical abuse, with the allegations published in a New Yorker article. He resigned three hours later, and was never criminally prosecuted.  So, if history is prologue, resigning amidst scandal definitely turns down the heat.

The Exception to the Rule: Weiner

The most infamous New York exception to this rule is arguably Anthony Weiner, the former Congressman and failed-New York City mayoral candidate. But even Weiner fits into the premise.

At first, in 2011, Weiner, whose wife was pregnant at the time, was caught using his public Twitter account to sext a photo of himself to a young woman. He then lied about it. Eventually, Weiner was forced to resign from the House of Representatives, but no other investigation into his behavior resulted. 

Anthony Weiner frowning with microphones in frontof him and his wife Huma Abedin, with a serious expression, next to him

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Anthony Weiner, while a mayoral candidate in 2013, talking about his indiscretions with then-wife Huma Abedin by his side

Andrew Kelly/EPA/Shutterstock

In spite of that scandal, Weiner mounted a run for mayor of New York two years later—in fact, he was leading City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in the polls—when, in July 2013, a young woman named Sydney Leathers revealed she had been in an intimate online and phone relationship with Weiner that began in 2012, and Weiner had called himself “Carlos Danger.” Weiner’s mayoral dreams plummeted, with Bill de Blasio taking control of the race and eventually winning the election.

On September 21, 2016, the Daily Mail published an article claiming that Weiner had sexted a 15-year-old girl. A year later, on September 25, 2017, Weiner was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, three years supervised release. He is also a registered sex offender. But it is important to note that this was Weiner’s second, go-round with the authorities, and the victim was a minor — which gets the attention of authorities in an entirely different way.

Is Time Really Up?

Roberta Kaplan, the chairwoman of #TimesUp, stepped down this month amid the Cuomo fallout as she became entangled in questions about conflicts of interest. Kaplan had advised Cuomo’s team on a planned (but never published) op-ed meant to smear an accuser, and her law firm represents one of the governor’s top advisers.

As she did, several of the women accusing Cuomo of harassment and assault hired attorneys, seemingly intent on going around the authorities, if their lack of appetite to pursue criminal investigation and prosecution of a once-powerful governor persists. 

Five years ago, before the #MeToo movement, women who alleged sexual harassment and assualt most often relied on prosecutors to help them secure a measure of justice. And at least one of Cuomo’s accusers has filed a criminal complaint against him for allegedly groping her while they took a selfie. But now, perhaps more than ever, victims are calling press conferences. They are calling high power attorneys to take their cases to the civil justice system for compensation. They are finding solidarity on social media. And they are saying, “Time’s up.”

Jami Floyd is the Senior Editor for Race and Justice at WNYC/Gothamist. If you have a tip for her, she’s on Signal and WhatsApp. Or you can message her on Twitter @jamifloyd.

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