Monday, March 1, 2010

Cuomo can't get governor's race in gear until Paterson, Espada probes wrap up

Elizabeth Benjamin

Monday, March 1st 2010, 4:00 AM

Andrew Cuomo says he will make his political plans public 'at the appropriate time.'
Smith for News
Andrew Cuomo says he will make his political plans public 'at the appropriate time.'

Albany's dysfunction will keep Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's campaign for governor on ice for the foreseeable future.

A source close to Cuomo confirmed the AG will not announce his candidacy as long as his investigations into both Gov. Paterson and Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx) are open. It could take more than a month for the two cases to be resolved.

The desire to wrap up his probes into fellow elected officials before jumping into the race gives Cuomo a rationale for continuing to avoid weighing in on contentious issues like the budget and ethics reform.

The news will no doubt disappoint Democrats who are clamoring for Cuomo to announce his candidacy and give them an official standard-bearer in an uncertain election year that seems to favor Republicans and insurgents. It could also provide fodder to Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio, who has been calling for Cuomo to stop hiding in a "foxhole" and share his solutions for fixing the state.

It took Cuomo less than a month to wrap up the investigation into Troopergate, the 2007 political scandal in which then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer misused the state police to try to sully his political nemesis, then-Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer).

Unlike in that case, however, Cuomo has subpoena power and criminal jurisdiction for his probe into whether the governor and the state police interfered in the domestic abuse case against top Paterson aide David Johnson. That's thanks to Paterson's formal referral of the matter to the AG's office.

This means the AG can empanel a grand jury and bring criminal charges if they're warranted.

"[Troopergate] was fairly isolated and ended in a policy report," the source close to Cuomo said. "This could be more expansive. One guy comes in and says something and it snowballs. It could be a month, or it could be longer. Nobody knows."

Cuomo doesn't relish the idea that he might announce the indictment of a sitting state senator while also running for governor, the source said, adding: "[The AG] can't do these cases once a campaign starts, and that is even more true with the David investigation."

In a statement following Paterson's announcement last Friday that he wouldn't run, Cuomo said he would make his own political plans public "at the appropriate time."

Before Paterson's bombshell upended the AG's timetable, the Daily News reported Cuomo would announce his candidacy at the end of March.

Paterson is wise not to resign because his job could be used as a bargaining chip should he face charges as the result of Cuomo's probe, political insiders said.

That tactic worked for former state Controller Alan Hevesi, who agreed to plead guilty in December 2006 to a felony count of defrauding the government in the so-called Chauffeurgate scandal. He had to resign from office, pay more than $200,000 restitution and a $5,000 fine, but did no jail time.

Spitzer resigned as a result of his prostitution scandal in March 2008, but never faced criminal charges. Bruno resigned in July 2008, but nevertheless was indicted on federal corruption charges and subsequently convicted. He is awaiting sentencing.

It could be politically sticky for Cuomo to bring charges against Paterson, as most black leaders are standing by his decision not to resign and could be upset if they sense the AG is being too hard on the beleaguered governor.

"There's a sense that he has been through too much already," one Capitol observer said of Paterson. "Cuomo won't be able to force him out unless there's clear evidence of a crime."

Paterson spokesman Peter Kauffmann declined to say whether the governor has hired an attorney to represent him in the Cuomo investigation.

ebenjamin@nydailynews.com

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