ALBANY — The state Assembly’s impeachment probe into Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to take months, officials said during an initial hearing Tuesday, before rejecting reports of potential conflicts of interest with the chamber’s choice of counsel.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, authorized the 21-member Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Charles Lavine, D-Glen Cove, to begin an impeachment investigation into Cuomo in wake of recent allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by nine women, a federal probe after top Executive Chamber aides allegedly underreported state COVID-19 congregate facility death data and questions about the structural integrity of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement named for his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
“At this early stage, it’s not possible to say how long the investigation will take,” Lavine said Tuesday. “Given the breadth and issues of this investigation, we estimate the time will be months rather than weeks.”
The Assembly Judiciary Committee met virtually at 9 a.m. Tuesday with attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, who the state hired to conduct the impeachment investigation into Cuomo.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said during a virtual press call with reporters Tuesday that it’s fair to expect the Assembly investigation to take months.
“I don’t think of it as a delay, I think of it as a fair process,” she said. “I’m not really commenting on their process ... I would imagine there would be some information sooner rather than later.”
Counsel and committee members convened on a Zoom call. Meeting audio was broadcast live on nyassembly.gov.
“We have been tasked to determine whether evidence exists in finding the governor engaged in conduct that merits impeachment under the New York state Constitution and under the laws of the state of New York,” Lavine said. “We will carry on our responsibilities fairly and with due process for all involved.”
Heastie announced the Assembly’s hiring of firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, including attorneys Angela Burgess, Greg Andres and Martine Beamon, on March 17.
The state Legislature asked Polk & Wardwell to prioritize the impeachment probe.
The Assembly’s team of attorneys includes Greg Andres, a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor who was part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and helped convict former President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of tax and bank fraud.
Angela Burgess, co-chair of Davis’ white-collar defense and investigations group, and Martine Beamon, a partner in the litigation department who previously served as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, will also assist the chamber.
Officials and advocates on both sides of the aisle have questioned the Assembly’s firm selection and a potential conflict of interest after some social media users noted that Dennis Glazer, the husband of state Supreme Court Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, was a longtime partner at Davis Polk. DiFiore is a Cuomo appointee.
Members of the Assembly questioned the attorneys for three minutes each during Tuesday’s committee meeting.
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, D-Greenburgh/Mt. Pleasant, asked the attorneys about the potential conflict of interest, including one lawyer who serves as counsel to the state Office of Court Administration Committee, which involves DiFiore.
Glazer retired from the firm in 2012, Burgess replied.
“Since then, (he) has not had any involvement in the firm’s business and not had involvement with respect to this matter or will he going forward,” she said, adding officials have evaluated the issue and determined there was no conflict.
Burgess serves as pro bono counsel for the state Justice Task Force, which studies potential issues in the criminal justice system and typically issues reports and recommendations to the Office of Court Administration. The group is currently tasked with examining racial disparities in the state system.
“I don’t think in any way whatsoever does that create a conflict or lessen the objectivity and the fairness that the three of us would bring to this very important investigation,” Burgess said.
Stewart-Cousins largely declined to comment on the Assembly’s probe or counsel selection.
“The Assembly is doing the process that they feel they need to do in order to get questions answered in the first steps toward the impeachment process,” Stewart-Cousins said Tuesday. “I don’t really have any comments on their selection or their process, frankly.”
Assemblyman Michael Montesano, R-Glen Head, asked the attorneys to provide a thorough report of the parameters of the contract for the royalties to Cuomo’s book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” he wrote at the height of the public health threat last year.
He requested committee members receive weekly updates about the firm’s findings.
“I do not want to see a process where months go by without status updates,” Montesano said.
The investigation will include reports about Cuomo’s management style and threats of retaliation, Beamon said, which she added are important aspects of any sexual misconduct probe.
Lavine served the Executive Chamber a Notice of Non-Retaliation several days ago, he said Tuesday.
“In other words, putting the governor on notice that he and his employees and allies should take no steps toward intimidating any witness or potential witness,” the committee chair said.
Attorneys and the committee will work as quickly as possible, but Andres clarified the group does not have a deadline to accept evidence or interview relevant witnesses.
Lawmakers and attorneys vowed to keep one another informed about new allegations, evidence and availability of relevant documents, audio and video recordings and transcripts.
As many as six other lawyers may assist, Andres said. The group was assigned to the case last Wednesday, and will continue to grow as they divide responsibilities.
Attorneys and Lavine assured lawmakers several times Tuesday the Legislature’s inquiry will not interfere with the separate investigation into accusations against Cuomo and his administration led by state Attorney General Letitia James.
The Judiciary Committee has the power to interview witnesses, subpoena documents and evaluate evidence, as permitted under the state constitution.
The Judiciary Committee will examine all accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct against the governor, if Cuomo directed staff to suppress related investigations into his administration, unlawfully withhold information required to be reported to the Legislature and other government entities or to withhold information regarding safety concerns of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo bridge.
New York’s 39th governor, William Sulzer, is the only leader in the state’s history to be removed from office. He was impeached after being convicted of perjury and left office in October 1913.
Committee members each received copies of relevant sections of the state Constitution and judiciary law and information about the history of Sulzer’s trial.
“There is very little precedent for impeachment in New York,” Lavine said. “We are mindful for the due process to ensure the fairness of this process for everyone — the victims, the witnesses and the governor and to do so in a transparent manner so all New Yorkers are informed.
“The questions we’re dealing with are so incredibly profound,” he continued. “The impeachment question is of tremendous significance and I can’t help but think 108 years from now and even longer than 108 years from now, people will be concerned and will study what it is that we as a state Legislature are doing.”
Stewart-Cousins was one of the first state Democratic legislative leaders to call for the governor’s resignation earlier this month. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, both D-N.Y., called for Cuomo’s resignation in a joint statement several days later.
Heastie has stopped short of calling for Cuomo to step down.
An impeachment resolution, passed by a simple 76-vote majority, would force the governor to resign. If passed, the Assembly speaker would draw up articles of impeachment and deliver them to the state Senate, which would hold a trial to convict the governor.
The 150-member state Assembly has 107 Democratic and 43 Republican members.
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.