Investigations into Cuomo heat up as new controversies arise in their wake
Originally Published: 20 MAR 21 08:04 ET
Updated: 20 MAR 21 12:01 ET
By Gregory Krieg and Kara Scannell, CNN
(CNN) -- After stiff-arming calls for his resignation from leading state Democratic lawmakers, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is staking his political fate on the outcome of a pair of independent investigations into allegations he sexually harassed or behaved inappropriately toward several women.
The first probe, launched by New York Attorney General Letitia James, appears to be moving forward apace, led by a pair of attorneys whose selection was cheered by victims' rights advocates and the governor's most ardent critics. Another, which will be conducted by outside counsel hired by Democrats in the state Assembly, has gotten off to a rockier start, beset by questions over a potential conflict of interest related to a former partner in the investigators' law firm.
Cuomo has not commented about either investigation, except to ask for the public to wait for their conclusions before passing judgment on him -- and, by extension, whether he should go forward in the job he's commanded for more than a decade.
Behind the scenes, though, Cuomo and senior officials from his office are dug in for what many expect to be a drawn-out fight on multiple fronts. Federal investigators are, in a separate matter, also now examining the governor's handling of nursing homes and data related to deaths among their residents during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York, an issue that could also get swept up in the Assembly's work. Though that inquiry could hold the steepest legal ramifications, the probes into allegations of sexual misconduct by Cuomo have captured more attention.
Lawyers for both investigations enter the ring with a depth of experience in politically fraught probes -- one of them, retained by the attorney general, has previously investigated Cuomo over an unrelated scandal and another, hired by the Assembly, worked on then-special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of former President Donald Trump.
An offer by the governor
Joon Kim, who has come face-to-face with Cuomo before, and Anne L. Clark are now in their second week of interviews and have already spoken to a number of accusers.
A former federal prosecutor, Kim ran the high-powered US attorney's office in New York's Southern District during parts of 2017 and 2018, including during its prosecution of one of Cuomo's top aides and close friends, Joseph Percoco, who was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted on corruption charges.
Clark, an employment lawyer regarded by colleagues as a leader in the field, also has experience on the political scene. She represented a woman who accused former New Jersey Assembly Speaker Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian of kissing and groping her, in a case that ended in 1997 with the state paying out a $175,000 settlement. Haytaian denied the allegations.
But less than two weeks into their pairing, Kim and Clark are already at the center of an increasingly unpredictable political maelstrom.
Recent revelations and admissions from Cuomo's office could potentially widen the scope of attorney general's investigation. Beth Garvey, acting special counsel to Cuomo, confirmed to the New Yorker in a story published late Thursday that his office had leaked to reporters what she called the "redacted employment records" of Lindsey Boylan, the first accuser to go public. In a statement to CNN, she defended the office's actions.
"With certain limited exceptions, as a general matter, it is within a government entity's discretion to share redacted employment records, including in instances when members of the media ask for such public information and when it is for the purpose of correcting inaccurate or misleading statements," Garvey said. "Given the ongoing review by the State Attorney General, we cannot comment further at this time."
Additionally, as first reported by the Albany Times Union this week, Cuomo's office is making available lawyers that represent the executive chamber to staffers who might be called into to speak with investigators.
The offer has stoked concerns that the governor is effectively seeking to place lawyers hired by his office into the inner sanctums of the investigation. For staffers, critics say, the choice of whether to accept the promise of aid is a Catch-22: they can either be observed answering questions by an attorney who works for the governor's office or be seen turning down the proposition, which might be read as a red flag by Cuomo's team.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat who has called for Cuomo to resign, told CNN he was stunned when he first read a news report about the offer and worried it would create a "chilling effect" among potential witnesses and victims.
"I think it is meant to intimidate and tell people that you either stick with the company scripts or you don't speak at all," he said.
Gounardes suggested that lawyers from the attorney general's office, who are not involved in any facet of an investigation that is already being run by outsiders Kim and Clark, should be made available to the governor's staff to head off any conflict of interest.
But as it stands, he added, Cuomo staffers are being placed in an untenable position. Besieged over the past month with talk of impeachment and legal action involving subpoenas, Gounardes is concerned that some might view the executive chamber's lawyers as their only port in a violent political storm.
"It's very easy (for staffers) to think, 'Wow, that's a relief. I have someone looking out for me.' But you have no idea if the attorney that's going with you is -- first of all, they're not your attorney. They don't represent you as an individual. They represent the governor," Gounardes said. "You have no assurances that what you say is not going to be used against you."
The Sexual Harassment Working Group, an organization founded by former state legislative employees dedicated to rooting out harassment in the state Capitol, called the executive chamber's offer "wholly inappropriate" in a statement on Thursday and suggested that "it could easily function as a screening of what the staffers might say, thus unfairly providing Cuomo and his enablers inside knowledge to craft their own defense and further intimidate witnesses."
Erica Vladimer, one of the group's co-founders, praised the attorney general for her selection of Kim and Clark. But she also said the back-and-forth that preceded Cuomo's eventual referral -- a mini-drama in which he twice sought to shape the probe by naming his own investigators only to be rebuffed by James -- further heightened concerns over his willingness to let the process run its course without interference.
"The governor's office isn't wrong in saying (staffers) should have an attorney, but by offering an attorney, they're really playing to these employees' vulnerability, knowing that finding an attorney who will do it for low fees or no fees is almost impossible," Vladimer said. (The Sexual Harassment Working Group put out a call on Thursday for outside lawyers to offer their assistance, free of charge.)
Kim and Clark have not made any public comments since their initial remarks following James' announcement they had been retained. The attorney general's office declined to comment when asked about Cuomo's office making available executive chamber attorneys to staff members. A spokesman for the governor also did not respond to a request for comment on criticism over the office's offer of legal representation to employees. Cuomo has denied ever touching anyone inappropriately and apologized for making others feel uncomfortable.
Kim and Cuomo meet again
During his time as the acting US attorney, Kim supervised several public corruption cases that put some of the most senior officials in Albany behind bars.
From 2015 to 2016, the US attorney's office announced separate criminal cases against Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the New York state Assembly; Dean Skelos, former Senate majority leader; and Percoco -- all of them eventually convicted.
But Kim's past with Cuomo runs deeper. He was top lieutenant in the New York office when it investigated Cuomo over his 2014 decision to shut down the Moreland Commission, a body the governor established to investigate corruption in Albany before abruptly shutting it down less than a year later. Kim was in the room when prosecutors interviewed Cuomo, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. No charges were ultimately brought against the governor, with prosecutors citing "insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime."
Andrew Goldstein, the former chief of the public corruption unit in New York at the time, described Kim to CNN as "careful and thorough" with "impeccable judgment" that should reassure the public.
"Whatever the findings are of this investigation," Goldstein said, "I think New Yorkers will be able to trust them."
When a federal appeals court sent back the 2015 conviction of Skelos following a Supreme Court ruling in 2017 that made it more difficult to prove public corruption cases, Kim vowed to retry the case.
"Cleaning up corruption is never easy, and that is certainly true for corruption in New York State government," Kim said in the aftermath. "But we are as committed as ever to doing everything we can to keep our government honest."
Skelos was subsequently convicted -- again -- a year later.
Preet Bharara, the former US attorney in Manhattan, told CNN that his close friend has the experience and political bravery required to stand tall in a face-off with Cuomo, a sharp political tactician who is known to keep grudges.
"Joon is familiar with the fact the governor plays hard ball. It's not a small thing to investigate the sitting governor and all that entails, particularly when he has a reputation that precedes him for retaliation and hurting careers," Bharara said. "Ambitious people might shy away from it."
Kim's previous experience during the Moreland Commission probe, which also posed an existential political threat to Cuomo, has frequently been cited as a sign of the seriousness of the attorney general's investigation. Bharara believes it also says a lot about his former colleague.
"Joon has done it and signed up to do it a second time. That tells me about the strength and character of a person who would do that," Bharara said.
The son of a South Korean diplomat, Kim was born in Los Angeles and spent time in London, Seoul and Jordan, traveling with his father's posts. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, graduated with a double major in quantitative economics and political science from Stanford University, and went on to study law at Harvard Law School. He is known as much for his sense of humor as his keen lawyerly judgement.
After a few years in private practice, Kim joined the US attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, where he worked on numerous mafia prosecutions, including the conviction of Peter Gotti, the Gambino crime family boss at the time, for conspiring to kill Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, a former underboss-turned-key witness against Gotti's brother, the infamous John Gotti.
Kim also investigated and went to trial against John Gotti Jr. over charges he ordered the attempted kidnapping of Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, a public safety patrol group. That trial ended in a hung jury, but it was there that he met Bharara, who said they were known as "Harold and Kumar" because there were so few Asian Americans in the US attorney's office in the early 2000s.
"They weren't a lot of Asian Americans who risked pissing off their parents by not going to medical school," Bharara said in a discussion with Kim in 2019, according to Above the Law blog, "or by going to law school and then not spending their entire career in a white-shoe law firm."
In 2006, Kim returned to Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton where he worked for another seven years until Bharara recruited him back to the US attorney's office, initially as his chief counsel. Kim quickly ascended the ranks, becoming chief of the criminal division and deputy US attorney. When Bharara was fired by former President Donald Trump in 2017, Kim took over as the acting US attorney for nearly a year.
During a relatively brief stint supervising the office's investigative decisions and prosecutions, he oversaw cases involving Billy McFarland, the Fyre Festival organizer who was accused of defrauding investors; Reza Zarrab, a Turkish banker who violated US sanctions; and a Chinese billionaire convicted in a United Nations bribery case. He also charged former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who would plead guilty, with transferring obscene material to a minor.
But prosecutors are often graded by their colleagues as much by the cases they bring as those they do not -- the decisions those in the field believe underscore a colleague's humility and good judgment.
One of those cases that Kim ultimately did not proceed with, despite the hoopla around it, followed an investigation into New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign fundraising efforts.
"After careful deliberation," Kim said at the time, "given the totality of the circumstances here and absent additional evidence, we do not intend to bring federal criminal charges against the mayor or those acting on his behalf relating to the fundraising efforts in question."
'Someone you love to work with'
Clark also has an estimable background with experience in cases that have come to help set abiding legal parameters for sexual misbehavior in the workplace. Before joining the firm currently known as Vladeck, Raskin & Clark, where she is a partner, Clark had previously worked for the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, a group now called Legal Momentum.
Kevin Mintzer, who worked closely with Clark for nearly a decade during his time at Vladeck, called her a legal powerhouse with "an immense recall" for specific facts and court cases going back decades and "an encyclopedic knowledge of employment law, generally, but specifically sexual harassment law."
"She's certainly friendly and very generous to work with," Mintzer said. "But Anne is very focused on work and her cases and her business. So she's someone you love to work with because they take seriously what they do and it's very important to them."
While leadership in the Assembly has come under fire for its hiring of Davis Polk, a firm with high-level credentials -- but one without a reputation for representing victims in circumstances similar to the one involving the Cuomo allegations -- Clark is renowned for her work representing employees, not their bosses.
Leading the Assembly's inquiry are a trio of white-collar defense lawyers at Davis Polk, including Greg Andres, a former mob prosecutor who worked on the Mueller probe. But his firm's connections to Cuomo -- a former partner was previously appointed by the governor to the board of a state university and his wife, State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, was one of Cuomo's first choices to investigate the allegations -- roiled some Democratic lawmakers and outside advocates, who also questioned whether Andres and his associates had the experience to properly interview individuals alleging sexual harassment and related claims. Also on the team are Martine Beamon, who had represented a company facing sexual misconduct allegations, and Angela Burgess, an experienced defense attorney with a history representing financial institutions.
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, during a press conference on Wednesday, said his choices had been well-vetted and that "we didn't find any conflict."
The back-and-forth over the Assembly's decision has further elevated the attorney general's independent investigation -- and its investigators.
Mintzer said that Clark's recruitment by James, the attorney general, suggested her office was moving forward with care and taking seriously how the investigation would be perceived by victims' rights groups and, potentially, others who might be weighing whether to speak out.
"Anyone who's looking at this and wants a sign that there's going to be someone hearing this information that has a perspective that is understanding of what a victim or witness has gone through, Anne is just that," he said. "If the investigation was being run purely by white collar defense type lawyers, who don't necessarily have that background in sexual harassment or representing victims, I think in that circumstance a victim could easily say or wonder whether or not they were going to be heard in the right way."
He also laughed off any potential concern that Clark might, given her relative inexperience -- at least in comparison to Kim -- in politically charged settings, might be susceptible to outside pressure from Cuomo or his allies.
"It's not even conceivable that she would feel any political pressure. Anne has no interest other than her work and representing her clients," Mintzer said. "There's nothing about who she is or her practice that would make her susceptible to any kind of pressure."
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.