Cuomo Removes Himself from Paterson Probe

Appoints Judith Kaye special counsel to oversee the criminal probe

By Michael Clancy
|  Friday, Mar 12, 2010  |  Updated 1:44 PM EDT
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It's becoming increasingly clear that Cuomo is the man to beat, according to the latest polls.

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New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has named a special counsel to oversee the investigations of Gov. David Paterson, the governor's state police detail, and the possibility that the governor perjured himself over World Series tickets.

"I have removed myself from the case," Cuomo, a presumed candidate for governor, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.  "An immediate resolution in this case does not seem likely."

Cuomo named former Chief Justice Judith Kaye a special counsel to oversee the case after an initial probe found  "credible issues" surrounding the allegations that "need to be resolved."

As a likely candidate for governor, Cuomo came under scrutiny for a conflict interest as he investigated Paterson's role in the case in which a woman accused David Johnson, a trusted Paterson adviser, of roughing her up.

The attorney general still has not announced himself as a candidate for governor. But Cuomo insisted that even if he were an announced candidate, there would be no conflict.

"David Paterson has said he has not intended to run for governor, so there is no conflict, " Cuomo said. But "even the appearance of a conflict... can be damaging."

Cuomo said he was being cautious in his approach because of the heated politics surrounding the probe.

But the attorney general has already gotten burned.

A Marist College poll Tuesday showed Cuomo's approval rating fell 13 points in the two weeks since he began investigating Paterson. Several polls showed New Yorkers preferred an independent prosecutor for the case, not Cuomo. Some pols, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, never thought he should've gotten involved in the first place. Although Cuomo wised up to public opinion and recused himself after two weeks, some political strategists say it may be too late.

The timing of Cuomo's decision to hand over the probe also raises eyebrows, considering it came just two days after his approval rating plummeted to 54 percent -- down 13 points in one week.

"It should not have required two weeks and a drop in the polls for Andrew Cuomo to recognize what he should have instinctively known from the beginning,'' Lazio said.

The Marist poll showed Cuomo was particularly hurt among black voters and New York City residents -- Paterson's base. Cuomo had at one time been worried about the black vote after mounting a primary challenge against H. Carl McCall in 2002, the comptroller many Democrats thought would be New York's first black governor. Cuomo dropped out, and McCall lost to Republican Gov. George Pataki, who just endorsed Lazio for governor.

Cuomo denies his decision was in any way motivated by his personal political ambitions.  

"This is a legal determination as to what is the best way to conduct an investigation,'' Cuomo said. "... I want to make sure this is an investigation that is as free from political interference as is possible.''

Cuomo told reporters that his two weeks in charge of the investigation were simply to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a full investigation. During that time, he said, dozens of witnesses were interviewed and thousands of pages of records were reviewed.

Investigators and lawyers from Cuomo's office will now report to Kaye, who will work pro-bono for an undetermined amount of time.

"We believe a thorough investigation is warranted on both matters and we are referring both [to Kaye]," Cuomo said. "We haven’t even had all the witnesses in at this point. We haven’t even had the key witnesses."

The governor himself has not been questioned by Cuomo's office, the attorney general said.

"The governor's office has cooperated we have interviewed -- between the two cases -- dozens, "Cuomo said.

Cuomo's decision to remove himself comes amid burgeoning scandals surrounding the Paterson administration.

Last October, Sherr-una Booker accused Paterson confidante David Johnson of choking her, tearing off her Halloween costume and shoving her against a mirror. She filed a domestic violence complaint but never filed criminal charges.

Johnson's attorney Oscar Michelen welcomed the development: "Any investigation that is based soley on the facts can only be in my client's favor."

Paterson has acknowledged that he talked to Booker before a scheduled family court hearing. The governor has said Booker called him and he only offered support but did not try to get her to drop her complaint or change her story.

Sources close to the investigation have said that two of the governor's staff members and a member of his state police security detail also contacted the woman, according to published reports.

Booker did not show up for the hearing and the domestic violence complaint was dropped.

Last week, a public integrity commission accused Paterson of violating state ethics laws when he sought and obtained free Yankees tickets for the 2009 World Series and then may have lied about his intention to pay for them. 

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