The state Assembly committee that laid groundwork to impeach Gov. Andrew Cuomo is dropping its inquiry against the outgoing governor, Speaker Carl Heastie announced Friday afternoon.
The move, which came three days after Cuomo announced he would be resigning his office later this month, left open the question of whether he could — or would — run for office again.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul is set to replace Cuomo on Aug. 24 — three weeks after State Attorney General Letitia James released a bombshell 168-page report charging that the governor sexually harassed 11 women.
The four-month inquiry by the Assembly Judiciary Committee found sufficient evidence to take action against Cuomo, Heastie (D-The Bronx) said in a statement, and “could have likely resulted in articles of impeachment had he not resigned.”
But the investigation aimed to determine whether Cuomo should remain in office, Heastie noted — a goal made pointless by the governor’s resignation. What’s more, he asserted, the state Constitution “does not authorize the legislature to impeach and remove an elected official who is no longer in office.”
Impeachment committee members, who were slated to meet in Albany Monday to talk about the future of the proceedings, were blindsided by the announcement to drop the inquiry.
“I thought we were going to have some discussion on that issue, but apparently not,” said Assemblymember Phil Steck (D-Schenectady), a member of the Judiciary Committee who learned that the chamber is suspending the investigation during an interview with THE CITY.
Heastie distributed a legal memo that addressed the question of whether a resigned governor could be impeached. The answer: “probably not.”
In an interview with THE CITY, Heastie said that memo ended up being decisive.
“The major consideration was: Did we have the constitutional authority to continue an impeachment process?” Heastie said. “Our outside counsel and all of the legal experts that I even saw comment publicly, said they did not believe we have the ability to do this. That’s the main justification.”
Heastie is asking Judiciary Chair Charles Lavine (D-L.I.) to turn over any evidence collected by the committee to local and federal prosecutors, which includes material related to the governor’s COVID-year memoir and the state’s accounting for nursing home deaths that occurred during the height of the pandemic.
Any records relating to potentially criminal sexual misconduct would also be passed along.
“The federal government is investigating the governor. The locals are investigating the governor, so is the attorney general. It is their responsibility to handle those investigations,” Heastie told THE CITY. “As I said, all of the evidence we gathered we will give it to them so they can complete their investigation. And besides, the Assembly, we’re not criminal prosecutors. That’s for different investigatory bodies to determine.”
Cuomo’s Future Unclear
The announcement left it unclear whether Cuomo could ever seek statewide office again. While no governor has been impeached and ousted from office in New York in over a century, legal observers said a conviction by the State Senate could have barred Cuomo from running.
Before scandal ensnared him earlier this year, the 63-year-old Democrat was widely expected to seek a fourth term next year. Hochul has already said she’ll run, while a wide array of elected officials across the state are believed to be mulling campaigns.
Cuomo boasts a campaign war chest of about $18 million. Many members of the Legislature have privately expressed concerns that Cuomo may use that money to fund challengers and settle political scores, even if he does not run for office again.
“I think the resignation does bring the Cuomo era to an end. Except for me, I’m not accepting of the concept that a governor who resigned for impropriety should be spending $18 million,” Steck said.
In March, the bipartisan Assembly Judiciary Committee began a multi-pronged investigation to determine whether there are grounds to remove Cuomo from office following accusations by several women who worked in his administration that he sexually harassed them.
At a meeting in Albany Monday, roughly 24 hours before Cuomo announced his resignation, committee members announced that they were nearing an end to the process and that an impeachment vote could happen as soon as September.
Steck wants to see the Assembly stay on Cuomo’s case, even without impeachment as a goal.
“I am hopeful that that leaves open the possibility for a report to be done. I think it’s important for the public to participate in this democratic process,” he added.
Other members of the committee also expressed their disappointment with the decision to drop the investigation, suggesting Monday’s meeting on how to proceed with impeachment would have been a close call.
The Judiciary Committee’s upcoming meeting, meanwhile, has been canceled.
‘An Obligation to the Public’
Both Democrats and Republicans denounced the Assembly’s decision.
GOP members of the Judiciary Committee slammed the move as “an egregious insult to the countless victims of Gov. Cuomo’s actions” — and called on the committee to continue its work and issue a public report.
“We are outraged by today’s events and the public should be outraged as well,” the Republican committee members said in statement.
Assemblymember Monica Wallace (D-Lancaster) said she “strongly” disagrees with the decision to suspend the investigation, telling THE CITY that the committee’s work should have continued. Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Manhattan) issued a similar statement.
“We have an obligation to the public and to the witnesses who came forward to finish our work and disclose our findings,” Wallace said in a statement.
“At the very least, the committee must issue a report with all of our findings. Without accountability, we set a precedent of abdicating responsibility and allowing abuse of power to continue,” said Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-Queens). “The mistreatment of women is not something I am going to allow to be ignored, neglected, or swept under the rug.”
But state Democratic Party leader Jay Jacobs, a longtime Cuomo ally who had called for his resignation, backed the decision to scrap impeachment.
“If you take a look at who advocates for it, each of those groups has an agenda that’s got nothing to do with finding the truth,” Jacobs said. “Their agenda is a political one and I just dont think this is the form or the manner to advance political agendas. If they’re concerned with finding the facts then it’s disingenuous to be looking to a political process to do it.”
“I think we should focus on doing the right thing. And doing the right thing right now means moving forward— not spending a lot of time unnecessarily looking backward,” he added.
‘Time Would be Wasted’
In his virtual resignation address, Cuomo laid out the case against impeachment, saying it would cost New Yorkers millions of dollars and distract from governing.
It’s “time and money that the government should spend managing COVID, guarding against the Delta variant, reopening upstate, fighting gun violence, and saving New York City,” Cuomo added. “All that time would be wasted.”
“Government really needs to function today. Government needs to perform. It is a matter of life and death. Government operations and wasting energy on distractions is the last thing that the state government should be doing,” the three-term Democrat said.
As the Assembly’s investigation was underway, the separate probe by outside investigators hired by James found that Cuomo and his aides also fostered a toxic work environment, sidestepped misconduct reporting procedures, and violated state and federal sexual harassment laws.
Over the course of the last five months, the impeachment inquiry broadened its scope to include whether the governor and his top aides underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes as the virus besieged the state last spring.
Also under examination: Cuomo’s use of state staff to help write a pandemic memoir for which he was paid $5.1 million; whether his family, top aides and allies received preferential COVID testing early in the crisis; and a potential cover-up of structural issues in the newly built Tappan Zee Bridge, named after the late-Gov. Mario Cuomo by his son.