As Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces potential expulsion from office, there is an open question over what becomes of the handpicked lieutenants who have helped impose his will on the MTA.
A state law that Cuomo pushed to change in 2019 says that the term of any board member will expire alongside that of the city or state elected official who recommended them for the post. But it’s unclear what happens if an official is abruptly removed from office.
Cuomo’s term officially ends Dec. 31, 2022, barring a now-unlikely reelection in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
If he resigns or is removed after impeachment, his reign could be over much sooner and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul would step in at a time when the transit system is struggling to rebound from the pandemic.
Larry Schwartz, an influential MTA board member and a longtime Cuomo confidante, told THE CITY Monday that he serves at the pleasure of the governor and would exit if a future governor no longer wants him at the nation’s largest public transit agency.
But Schwartz said he’s done a good job.
“I believe that in my over five years on the board, I’ve contributed to improving New York City’s transit system and the MTA,” Schwartz said. “I’m proud of the many things I’ve advocated for on behalf of MTA ridership and the taxpayers of this state.”
Ending the ‘Cuomo Cabal’
John Samuelsen, the international president of the Transport Workers Union and an MTA board member, last week called out Schwartz as one of the governor’s “bullying sycophants” at the transit agency — tweeting he should be “tossed out ASAP.”
The labor leader also named fellow board member Linda Lacewell, superintendent of the state Department of Financial Services, as part of what he called the “Cuomo cabal.”
A report released last week by state Attorney General Letitia James detailing sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo names both Schwartz and Lacewell as being part of an effort to counter the governor’s accusers. Lacewell did not respond to a request for comment.
“They don’t belong there,” Samuelsen told THE CITY. “They should just go.”
Schwartz, who formerly served as secretary to the governor, was named to the MTA board by Cuomo in 2015, and Lacewell was appointed in 2019. Both of their terms would normally expire Jan. 1, 2023.
Schwartz serves as chair of the MTA board’s finance committee, a role he used last month to delay this year’s planned fare increase until at least 2022, and also sits on the transit, bridge and tunnel, and corporate governance committees.
Lacewell chairs the bridge and tunnel committee and is on the transit, finance, corporate governance, and diversity committees.
‘Not a Welcoming Place’
But multiple board members and former MTA executives told THE CITY that some of Cuomo’s picks for the 23-person panel have made oversight of an agency with a $17 billion budget more difficult.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that the MTA board is not an open, welcoming, collaborative or problem-solving place to be,” said Robert Linn, who joined the board in 2019 after being recommended by Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It is my hope that the new leadership with Janno [Lieber] changes all that.”
Lieber, a top MTA construction and development official, was last month named acting chairperson and CEO by Cuomo after state lawmakers pushed back on plans to split the top job in two.
“Janno Lieber looks forward, in the role of chair, to working closely and collaboratively with all members of the board, with whom he’s had a longstanding and productive partnership on a number of important issues,” Tim Minton, an MTA spokesperson, said in a statement to THE CITY.
Under public authorities law, de Blasio’s four appointees to the MTA board could also be out once he leaves office at the end of this year.
The county executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties also get one pick each for the board, and there are six non-voting seats held by union reps and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.
Cuomo selects the chairperson, and in 2019 added the state budget director, Robert Mujica, to the board.
“The thing we are hoping for, if there is a change, is that MTA officials can do their job without the micromanagement and with a degree of independence,” said Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst with Reinvent Albany, a watchdog group.
Fauss added that a new governor who takes office before the end of Cuomo’s term “would have the moral authority to ask MTA board members to resign,” even if the law does not require them to be replaced.
Crucial to the city’s emergence from COVID crisis, the transit system is struggling to regain passengers, with daily subway ridership at about half of what it was prior to the pandemic, according to the MTA.
The agency is contending with staffing shortages that have led to an increase in canceled subway and bus trips. Meanwhile, some workers are pushing back against Cuomo’s vaccination mandate for MTA employees, even after losing more than 160 colleagues to pandemic-related deaths.
‘Space to Do Their Job’
Mario Peloquin, who lasted just over a year as the MTA’s chief operating officer before departing in February, told THE CITY that Schwartz asked him to step aside because he had made decisions without his approval.
“I announced I was leaving the MTA within a week of that call, as a COO cannot work on a 24-hour operation by waiting for a person who doesn’t understand transit to make a decision at his convenience,” Peloquin said Monday.
Schwartz said he has “no agenda” other than to do a good job for New York and the MTA.
Samuelsen, who recently pulled TWU support of Cuomo, said Schwartz has repeatedly “tamped down” debate among board members who have fiscal oversight of the agency.
“He goes out of his way to show he’s the governor’s guy on the board,” Samuelsen said. “He makes it clear the buck stops with him.”
Fauss expressed hope for a different type of MTA board soon.
“This governor has used his board members and chair positions to micromanage the MTA,” she said. “Another governor could appoint transit professionals and give them more space to do their job.”