Saturday, January 22 2022

A member of the state assembly impeachment inquiry committee said he was concerned the Cuomo administration was attempting to intimidate potential witnesses as part of an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general on sexual harassment allegations against the governor.

Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s remarks have drawn fire from the lawyer representing one of the women who say Cuomo harassed them.

The dispute began on Wednesday when Charles Lavine, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which oversees the impeachment inquiry against Cuomo, issued a stern warning to the governor’s director of communications and senior assistant Rich Azzopardi.

Lavine took issue with tweets Azzopardi posted denigrating a union leader who broke with Cuomo as an “extortionist” and questioning the political motives of Attorney General Tish James. James is investigating multiple allegations of sexual harassment against the governor, as well as charges that the governor used staff to help him write and edit a brief, for which he was paid $ 5.1 million of dollars.

Lavine said he had previously warned Cuomo and his associates against intimidating potential witnesses or attempting to retaliate against them, and he said Azzopardi’s attempts to demean James “undermine” the investigation and send “deeply negative signals to witnesses.” Lavine warned that Azzopardi’s comments could have “serious repercussions” regarding “the judicial committee’s consideration of the governor’s impeachment issue.”

Assembly member Phil Steck, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he agreed and Azzopardi’s statements were a “major concern”.

“Rich Azzopardi has a reputation for being a bomb thrower,” Steck said. “And in this situation, it’s just completely inappropriate.”

Cuomo’s private attorney responded cheerfully, saying Azzopardi’s tweets were not an attempt to suppress the testimony. Lawyer Paul Fishman said it was Lavine who acted inappropriately by threatening to punish the governor’s assistants for “speaking out on important issues of public policy.” He also said Lavine was trying to suppress Azzopardi’s right to free speech under federal and state constitutions.

2021.7.22 Letter from the Executive Chamber by WXXI News on Scribd

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who attended an unrelated Schenectady event with Steck, said he was trying to stay neutral until the impeachment inquiry was completed.

“I will wait for the results of this investigation, and I will comment then,” Heastie told reporters.

James, whose investigators interviewed Cuomo on July 17, is said to be close to completing his investigation. But Heastie said if the final report finds evidence of wrongdoing, that alone cannot trigger impeachment proceedings.

“I think this should be part of the Assembly’s consideration, but I don’t know whether the report itself, alone, without the conclusion of the work of the Judicial Committee, should give rise to action,” said Heastie said.

The remarks angered Debra Katz, the lawyer representing Charlotte Bennett, one of the women who say Cuomo sexually harassed her. Katz accused Heastie of actively obstructing efforts to hold Cuomo accountable for his alleged actions, saying his remarks are a “betrayal of his office duties” and demonstrates his loyalty to the governor over “the rule of law or to women who have been victimized Katz asked Heastie to retract.

Heastie spokesperson Michael Whyland said in a tweet that Heastie’s remarks were “misinterpreted”.

Whyland said the speaker wanted James’ report to be part of the impeachment inquiry, but said the Assembly was also looking into other allegations against the governor, including the deal on the book.

Critics have said the Assembly impeachment inquiry, which began in early March, is taking too long and Assembly Democrats are working to cover Cuomo. Steck says that’s not true. He said the impeachment inquiry had recently obtained subpoena power and the law firm hired to conduct the investigation is now taking sworn testimony from witnesses.

“I believe, hope and certainly expect that we will have completed our work in the Judicial Commission before the end of the year,” said Steck. “And hopefully well before then.”

An investigation by the U.S. Attorney General for Eastern New York State into allegations that Cuomo and his assistants covered up the number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 is also underway.

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