All eyes were on State Attorney General Letitia James Tuesday as she unveiled a damning 168-page report that spurred calls, from City Hall to the White House to the statehouse, for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But James stood determined to deflect the attention from herself, keeping the focus on allegations against Cuomo — and on the 11 women who accused him of sexual harassment.
“I am inspired by all the brave women who came forward,” she told reporters. “More importantly, I believe them.”
It marked perhaps the most glaring spotlight yet commanded by James, who began investigating the business dealings of then-President Donald Trump and his family after taking office in 2019.
On Tuesday, she remained largely solemn as she delivered a brief factual summary of the report, calmly turning away questions that meandered past the scope of the investigation’s findings and toward possible criminal referrals and Cuomo’s political prospects.
‘I am inspired by all the brave women who came forward.’
James repeatedly deferred to Anne Clark and Joon Kim — the two independent lawyers she deputized to conduct the investigation.
The only hint of ire came when James was asked about members of the governor’s team who’d issued statements and tweets casting doubts about her integrity and raising concerns about her political motivations — suggesting her probe would be impaired because she may seek to run against Cuomo next year.
“There were attempts to undermine and to politicize this investigation. There were attacks on me and other members of the team, which I find offensive,” James said. “Our focus, again, should be on the bravery and courage of these 11 women and on the others who came forward. These allegations were substantiated and they were corroborated.”
‘A Woman of Faith’
Long before she ascended to become the state’s top prosecutor, the graduate of CUNY’s Lehman College and Howard University School of Law worked as a public defender at The Legal Aid Society.
James began her career in politics by serving Brooklyn, where she was born in 1958 and was raised.
She spent a decade representing parts of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant in the City Council, winning in 2003 as a Working Families Party nominee. She cultivated close ties with constituents, lawmakers and advocates — all of whom called her by her nickname, “Tish.”
In 2013, voters elected James to succeed Bill de Blasio as public advocate — a citywide role that offers a bully pulpit and is seen as stepping stone to mayor, which James expressed interest in pursuing.
But when Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned in May 2018 following a report that he physically abused multiple women, James pivoted from her expected path and ran for the vacant seat.
Cuomo endorsed James for attorney general, a role that he once held, in exchange for her refusing the Working Families Party’s support (the party endorsed her anyway). During his tenure as attorney general, Cuomo had investigated two sitting governors, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.
Promising to aim her quiver at Trump, she won, becoming the only Black woman to hold statewide office in New York and the first to serve as its attorney general.
“She has put in her time in the trenches. I think what people should take from where she is now, in this nationally significant position, is that when you work hard, you reap results,” said Christine Quinn, who served alongside James in the City Council.
“Tish is a woman of faith, deep faith,” Quinn added. “I believe her faith frames her professional life and her entire life. If she sees a potential wrongdoing, buttressed by her faith, she’s gonna go after it.”
Seeds of Cuomo Clashes
As attorney general, James investigated the Trump Organization and sued the NRA and the NYPD and helped secure a $1.1 billion settlement with opioid distributors.
An early break from the Cuomo administration, on whether undocumented immigrants should have access to drivers’ licenses, dashed expectations that she’d be an unwavering ally of the governor. Cuomo raised questions about safety concerns about the bill, but James deemed it constitutional, effectively greenlighting it.
And, directed by Cuomo, she examined whether his administration undercounted COVID-19 nursing home deaths, concluding it did by as much as 50% — a matter the FBI is looking into.
Their now presumably irrevocable split has only widened with her office’s inquiry into the sexual misconduct allegations against the governor. James confirmed Tuesday she’s still examining whether Cuomo used state resources for “American Crisis,” the pandemic memoir that brought him $5.1 million from the publisher.
“Today we are living in a super-heated if not toxic political environment. That shouldn’t be lost on anyone,” Cuomo said in a 15-minute pre-recorded rebuke to the report, taking a not-so-thinly-veiled swipe at James. “Politics and bias are interwoven throughout every aspect of this situation. One would be naive to think otherwise.”
Governor Cuomo Responds to Independent Reviewer Report: https://t.co/sgPuPEDXRU— Archive: Governor Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) August 3, 2021
Zephyr Teachout, a lawyer and law professor at Fordham University who ran against Cuomo for governor in 2014 and against James for attorney general in 2018, called her investigations into the nursing home death count and the misconduct allegations “rock solid.”
“I think it’s important to see this as part of a series of very important investigations she’s done and structuring them that’s a way beyond question,” Teachout said. “James has shown over and over again she’s not just up to the task — she has excelled and exceeded expectations at every step of the way.”
‘She’s in Charge’
Cuomo begrudgingly directed her to investigate the sexual misconduct claims against him after his attempts to impanel a probe by political allies were rebuked by James and lawmakers.
To defend against appearances of any conflicts of interest, James hired two lawyers to conduct the investigation: Clark, an employment discrimination attorney, and Kim, a former acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
As she sat on a desk next to the podium looking on, the duo took the reins on Tuesday to detail the report’s findings, the product of 179 interviews — including one with Cuomo — and a review of 74,000 pieces of evidence.
James’ deference to the pair showed she was in command, said Lupe Todd-Medina, a political consultant and a friend of the attorney general.
When James did speak, “She wasn’t bombastic, she wasn’t demonstrative, she was very measured in her tone [and] it showed not just that it’s a very serious thing we’re talking about, but it also showed she is in control, she’s in charge,” Todd-Medina said.
James lauded the professionalism of Clark and Kim, adding that she supports and “will defend their work.”
Several elected and public officials — including former Cuomo allies, like Quinn, as well as President Joe Biden — on Tuesday called on the governor to resign or for the state Assembly to impeach him, following the release of her report. Their words echoed James’ belief in the women who came forward and set off the process.
In declining to answer Tuesday whether Cuomo should run for reelection, James said, “That’s a political question. The work of the Office of the Attorney General is done.”