State Assembly Democrats took a first step Thursday toward impeaching Gov. Andrew Cuomo — authorizing an investigation to determine whether there are grounds to remove him over multiple sexual harassment allegations and his handling of nursing home deaths.

In an online videoconference, Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) told fellow Democratic Assembly members that the chamber’s judiciary committee will launch a probe to “examine allegations of misconduct” against the three-term governor. 

The 21-member, bipartisan committee “will have the authority to interview witnesses, subpoena documents and evaluate evidence,” Heastie said in a statement.

Cuomo, who already faces investigations into the harassment and nursing home scandals, has denied any wrongdoing — and has said there’s “no way” he’ll voluntarily step down. 

The precursory “impeachment investigation” is needed because the state Constitution does not specify grounds for bringing charges against a governor, according to several lawmakers who participated in the briefing.

There also isn’t much precedent to point to for guidance. Only one governor in New York’s history has been impeached and removed from office — William Sulzer, who was bounced 10 months into his term in 1913 on charges that he lied about his campaign’s finances and used threats to suppress evidence.  

Finding grounds for impeachment — an investigation that could take weeks, encompassing crucial upcoming budget negotiations — is the first step of the process. 

To pass an impeachment resolution, the 150-member chamber would need a simple majority in favor, 76 members. The controlling Democratic majority currently holds 106 seats, while Republicans hold 43 and one seat is independent.

But as is typical in Albany, the chamber is unlikely to move forward with impeachment without at least 76 Democratic members in support. So far, 43 Assembly Democrats have indicated they would like to see the governor resign.

State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie speaks at a nurses rally at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, Nov. 19, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Democrats Divided

Some lawmakers in the Democratic conference say an investigation isn’t needed. They argue that the allegations aired via media reports from six women — plus the state’s handling of COVID-19-related nursing home deaths — are enough.

Multiple women who worked for Cuomo have described sexually inappropriate remarks and in some cases unwanted touching by the governor. 

One aide, whose name has not been disclosed, recently alleged Cuomo groped her under her shirt after summoning her to the governor’s mansion late last year. Details of that latest allegation surfaced in the Albany Times Union Wednesday night, helping precipitate Thursday’s Assembly action.

And Cuomo was recently forced to acknowledge that the number of nursing home COVID-19 fatalities was in fact double the number the state Department of Health had reported — a death toll some critics contend was worsened by a state mandate for the residences to take COVID-positive patients discharged from hospitals.

Assemblymember Ron Kim told THE CITY there’s “enough evidence to proceed with the impeachment process,” citing a section in state’s Judiciary Law that refers to “willful and corrupt misconduct in office” as an impeachable offense. 

“Furthermore, it is important we immediately remove him so he can no longer abuse his powers while endangering other staff members,” he added. 

Earlier in the day, Kim and 58 of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature – 19 senators and 40 members of the Assembly — signed onto a statement demanding that Cuomo resign. 

Some Seek Speed

Although the governor has seen his fortunes fade in the last few days amid mounting harassment allegations, he’s not without allies. 

During the private three-hour meeting Thursday among Assembly Democrats, some members raised concerns that the governor wouldn’t have due process if the chamber voted to approve impeachment proceedings immediately, according to lawmakers and aides. 

But other members say there’s no time to waste.

“We should be starting the process and drafting the articles,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan) told THE CITY. “The investigation and the trial are on the Senate side and are due process.” 

Kim agreed. “Some of us argued this is redundant because the same testimonies will be submitted under oath during the impeachment process,” he said. 

If the Assembly ultimately votes to approve an impeachment resolution, then it heads to the State Senate for a trial, where members of the 63-seat chamber and the seven judges on the Court of Appeals would serve as jurors, according to the state Constitution. 

While the trial is ongoing, Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul would serve as acting governor. Neither Hochul nor Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) — both in the line of succession — would be allowed to take part. 

If two-thirds of the jurors, 46, vote to convict the governor, he would be removed from office and prohibited from holding public office in New York. 

Budget Squeeze

Further complicating matters is the timing of the impeachment investigation, which kicks off just as negotiations over this coming year’s state budget begin in earnest. 

A final fiscal plan is due by April 1 and it’s unlikely the judiciary committee’s investigation would be concluded by then, lawmakers and aides speaking on background said. 

The situation is sparking concerns that Cuomo may retaliate against legislators, since he wields tremendous power over budgetary matters and can stymie the flow of money to programs and grants. 

The judiciary committee’s investigation would run concurrently with Attorney General Letitia James’ inquiry into sexual harassment allegations that kicked off earlier this week with the appointment of former federal prosecutor and a prominent employment discrimination lawyer to lead the investigation. 

“Today’s action by the New York state legislature will have no bearing on our independent investigation into these allegations against Governor Cuomo. Our investigation will continue,” James said in a statement.