Inside the New York Democrats' messy fight over whether to impeach Andrew Cuomo

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is not being impeached — yet.

Instead, with mounting sexual misconduct accusations and an alleged cover-up of nursing home deaths, Cuomo is facing an investigation from his fellow Democrats in the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee that could, conceivably, result in his removal from office. However, multiple members of the Albany Legislature are concerned the investigation is merely “buying time” for the governor, whose term ends next year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a visit to a new COVID-19 vaccination site, Monday, March 15, 2021, at the State University of New York in Old Westbury. The site is scheduled to open on Friday. (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday at a new COVID-19 vaccination site at the State University of New York in Old Westbury. (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo)

Yahoo News has spoken to multiple sources and obtained audio of the March 11 video conference meeting at which Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie revealed to colleagues that he had decided to launch a probe into Cuomo’s conduct rather than begin a formal impeachment. Heastie publicly announced the investigation following that call.

The contentious conversation between Heastie and his Democratic colleagues, which has not previously been reported in detail, revealed how New York Democrats are consumed by Cuomo’s conduct and are deeply divided on how to move forward. It also showed how the legislators are grappling with fears of Twitter leaks as well as concerns that more women might come forward with allegations against the governor.

During the March 11 meeting, Heastie — who has represented District 83, which includes part of the Bronx, in the Assembly for over two decades — repeatedly described his decision to start an investigation rather than introduce articles of impeachment as “due process.” At one point, he said the Assembly’s Democratic conference was divided between those who want to leave it to state Attorney General Tish James to investigate Cuomo’s conduct, those who hope the governor will step down and those who want to see him impeached.

“I try to come up with something that’s best for the body. Everybody might not love it, everybody may not like it, but I try to get us to a comfortable place that protects the integrity of this house,” Heastie said on the audio of the meeting obtained by Yahoo News.

Heastie did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Multiple Assembly members told Yahoo News that he informed the conference they would not have further video meetings going forward.

An Albany source who is in regular contact with Heastie described the speaker as caught “between a rock and a hard place.” They argued he is trying to buy time, hoping for the pressure and scandal to die down, with the knowledge that the Judiciary Committee has not conducted any aggressive investigations in recent years.

“He knows that the Judiciary Committee has no teeth,” the source, who requested anonymity to discuss confidential conversations, said of Heastie.

After Heastie made his initial remarks during the March 11 meeting, other Assembly members were invited to speak for three minutes each. Some criticized Heastie’s decision as not moving quickly enough to oust the governor.

“The idea of a committee feels like we’re just kicking a can, to be quite honest,” Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas said. “I don’t think the Judiciary Committee goes far enough, and I do worry we’re just buying time.”

Assemblyman Ron Kim, an outspoken critic of the governor, described the move as an attempt to “cover” for Cuomo.

“We have a moral duty, a constitutional duty, to remove him from office if he does not resign,” Kim said. “We can punt it, but everyone now is watching every single thing we do. We can make excuses, we can do a number of different things, but we know what’s going on. We know what the truth is.”

The majority of those who spoke on the call, however, expressed support for the speaker. None of the Democratic legislators who discussed the investigation indicated a desire to see Cuomo stay in office.

Heastie’s decision means the drama surrounding Cuomo won’t likely end anytime soon. Faced with repeated questions about how long the investigation might take, Heastie said that was unclear.

“I have no idea what the time frame is,” he said. “People have to be interviewed under oath. An outside firm is going to have to be hired that deals with this type of stuff.”

He said that some interviews conducted by the committee “would not be made public,” while allowing for the possibility that “some people could be called in front of the committee as part of a hearing.” He also said the investigation won’t necessarily result in articles of impeachment against Cuomo.

“I can’t predict the outcome because I don’t know what this Judiciary Committee is going to find,” Heastie said.

According to Heastie, the committee’s investigation of Cuomo will focus on three different things: the seven women who have accused the governor of assault, the nursing home deaths and the mounting questions about a massive bridge construction project.

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. SUNY and CUNY students, faculty and staff from across the state, joined by elected officials, members of the USS, PSC CUNY, NYPIRG and and other student organizations gathered together in Albany  for the Higher Ed Action Day, visiting legislators to demand full funding for higher education across the state. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
New York state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“He’s got three major buckets of shit going on here,” Assemblyman John McDonald, who expressed support for Heastie’s plan, said of the governor.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests from Yahoo News for comment.

At multiple points in the nearly four-hour conversation, as he advocated for “due process” with his Democratic colleagues, Heastie pointed out that “people get accused of things,” and as elected officials, they could face scandalous allegations of their own.

“These days any one of us in this place could be accused,” he said.

Albany has seen recurring corruption and misconduct scandals in recent years, and other legislators echoed Heastie’s description.

“What is happening with Cuomo can happen to all of us,” said Assemblyman José Rivera. “It could happen to any one of us, so your strategy is the best one.”

As with presidential impeachments, if articles are approved by the New York Assembly, then it is left to the state Senate to hold a trial.

“I don’t agree with the characterization of impeachment as the absence of due process. I do think that impeachment is a process,” Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani said, adding, “If we vote for impeachment, then it triggers the court of impeachments having the ability to collect facts and get sworn testimony, and then the Senate goes through that trial.”

Heastie countered the calls for impeachment by saying that some of the allegations were “based on a newspaper article or other people’s assertions.” He said the Assembly should get sworn testimony before moving forward with articles of impeachment.

“We need to get witness testimony. We need to hear from people who have this information. You put them under oath,” Heastie explained, adding, “They may have made false statements. I don’t know.”

Gustavo Rivera, a Democratic state senator and staunch Cuomo critic, described the “due process” argument as “silly” in a conversation with Yahoo News on Monday evening.

State Assemblyman Michael Blake, left, and state Seb Gustavo Rivera, center, speak to reporters during a news conference in front of New York City Police headquarters, Thursday, April 30, 2015, in New York, to demand an end to violent, hyper-aggressive policing. (Mary Altaffer/AP Photo)
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, center, during a news conference at New York City police headquarters in 2015. (Mary Altaffer/AP Photo)

“First of all, anybody who says that … is trying to change the subject, because due process is in reference to potential criminal liability, which is something that we do not have the authority to determine,” Rivera said of the Legislature. “The attorney general or ... the state police, or the Albany police or something, would be the ones to determine that. … That due process will continue. This is a political process that has to do with whether he is trustworthy enough to be able to govern.”

Multiple advocates for impeachment pointed out that the attorney general released a detailed report in January on the deaths in nursing homes in New York state. That report concluded that state officials “undercounted” the number of coronavirus patients who died in nursing homes after the governor directed residences for senior citizens to accept patients who were being treated for COVID-19. The FBI and federal prosecutors are also reportedly investigating the nursing home deaths.

“My concern is that I think we need to be moving with a little more haste,” Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson said. “People are saying ‘due process,’ but the attorney general has already conducted a thorough report into the nursing home thing. The report is 76 pages long. I think that that’s enough right there for impeachment, but I think that with this Judiciary piece we’re essentially buying time.”

The attorney general is conducting a separate, ongoing investigation into the sexual harassment allegations, and Albany police are also investigating an allegation that Cuomo groped a staffer.

Some of the advocates for impeachment suggested during the March 11 meeting that the governor has “admitted” to some aspects of the allegations.

“What upsets me is that we are seen to be, but in fact also are, standing by while he has admitted to some of this behavior,” Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said. “No, it wasn’t under oath, but he has asked forgiveness because he didn’t intend it, blah, blah, blah.”

Earlier this month, Cuomo said he was “embarrassed” by the harassment allegations. While he denied ever having touched anyone “inappropriately,” he suggested kissing people is his “usual and customary way” to greet them at events and apologized if he had made “anyone feel uncomfortable.” A top aide to Cuomo has also conceded that some data on nursing homes was withheld.

Many of the legislators also raised questions about Cuomo’s future conduct. Some argued he might attempt to hamper the investigation or disrupt ongoing budget negotiations that are vital for pandemic relief. And some suggested the governor could harm his staff while he remains in office. In addition to staff members who have accused him of harassment, multiple former aides have come forward in recent weeks describing his office as a toxic work environment.

“I’m worried about the staff ... and I’m also very concerned about the integrity of negotiations that you will have to conduct with a wounded animal,” Rosenthal said. “Wounded animals go out and strike at you because they’re in pain, and that’s what they do.”

Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou similarly expressed concerns for the well-being of the governor’s team and the ongoing budget negotiations.

“Impeachment is due process, by the way,” Niou said. “If this is a step towards impeachment, that is an interesting concept, but I also think that we shouldn’t be buying him time. … Every day he is in office, he is also a danger to his staff. … He’s a danger to New Yorkers, and we can’t deal or negotiate with him in good faith.”

Assemblywoman Chantel Jackson said that formally beginning impeachment would force the governor to relinquish his powers for the duration of that process. She pointed out that the conference meeting was originally supposed to be about the budget and said it was “so frustrating” that discussion was postponed to talk about impeachment.

In this Feb. 13, 2019 file photo, New York Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, D-New York, speaks during a public hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace, in Albany, N.Y. (Hans Pennink/AP Photo)
New York Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou in 2019. (Hans Pennink/AP Photo)

“We just need to move to impeach because we need him to step aside. I need him to step aside,” Jackson said. “He needs to do it as soon as possible.”

Some of the concerns expressed by lawmakers on the call stemmed from Cuomo’s reputation for political bullying and retaliation, they said.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, went so far as to quip that the head of the Judiciary Committee, Charles Lavine, should watch his back during the probe.

“Chuck Lavine is well qualified to do this, and that's the right place for this,” Thiele said. “I will not be starting his car in the morning, but I think he's the right guy for the job.”

Mamdani, who had called for impeachment, said it is clear that Cuomo would act only in his own interests.

“What do we know of his behavior in the past that would really make us think that he has a morsel of good faith, that he’s concerned about anyone beyond himself?” Mamdani asked.

And multiple legislators expressed concerns that the governor and his team might try to exert influence over the investigation. Jackson noted that members of Cuomo’s office were making “calls” to members of the Legislature, attempting to “gauge where they were” on impeachment. As she was speaking, Rosenthal pointed out that Jay Jacobs, the chair of the New York state Democratic Party and a staunch Cuomo ally, issued a statement during the conference meeting saying he agreed with Heastie’s approach.

“You are already being co-opted, because Jay Jacobs just sent around a statement,” Rosenthal said to Heastie. “Was Jay Jacobs sitting in here? Why would he do this? ... They are gaming us.”

Heastie was asked how Jacobs — who wasn't included in the conference call, which was limited to lawmakers — was aware of the decision to launch an investigation.

“I don’t know,” Heastie said.

And Cuomo wasn’t the only outside actor the lawmakers were worried about. During the call, multiple Assembly members expressed anger about leaks to the press. At one point, Heastie stopped and read aloud a tweet NY1 reporter Zack Fink had posted that quoted an anonymous legislator accusing Heastie of buying “more time” for Cuomo.

“I want to say this, and I hope everybody is on this because I want y’all to hear me and hear me good,” Heastie said before reading the tweet, then added, “I just want to say whoever felt like you wanted to say that, why don’t you have the courage to say that to my face or say it in this room? I think whoever did that is a coward for going outside of this conference and doing something like that, and I just want to say it on the record. This shit needs to stop.”

One Assembly member, who requested anonymity due to the anger over leaks, said multiple legislators had reached out to the press to frame the investigation as an “impeachment” inquiry because they were concerned Heastie would not use the term. Assemblyman Charles Barron, who pushed for immediate impeachment on the call, told Yahoo News on Tuesday that he believed some of the lawmakers on the call “moved the leadership to talk about an impeachment investigation as opposed to just an investigation.”

“I think that we’ve got to realize that impeachment is simply a charge,” Barron said. “This man should have been impeached.”

When pressed near the end of the call about whether he would phrase the investigation as part of an impeachment, Heastie said he would because he felt that would give the step necessary “teeth.”

“I think in order for it to give a sense of … validity and seriousness, I think the word 'impeachment' has to appear in there … in the statement,” he said.

The announcement Heastie issued after the meeting ultimately referred to the judiciary probe as an “impeachment investigation.”

Demonstrators demanding that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resign from office hold signs and chant at a rally on March 2, 2021 in New York City. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in New York City on March 2. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Some of the supporters of Heastie’s position who called for “due process” noted that Democrats in New York and nationally have pushed for criminal justice reform. Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte invoked the “Central Park Five,” a group of young Black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted for assaulting a white woman in the late 1980s, as she argued that Cuomo deserves a lengthy investigation. Assemblyman Al Taylor echoed her point near the end of the call and took things a few steps further as he blasted leaks and expressed support for Heastie.

“I want to thank my friends and colleagues that leak to the press. That’s that sucker move, just straight up. You can’t say it to anybody’s face, but you’re going to dish it out the back door. I want to thank those people that have texted and Twittered me talking about I’ve been silent. I believe in due process,” Taylor said.

“Speaker, I stand with you 1,000 percent. ... Without due process they killed Emmett Till. They were allegations and they hung him. The exonerated five spent 15 years in jail without the proper due process,” Taylor added. “I represent Harlem and Washington Heights. If you got a problem with me and you want to bring your folks, come on up here.”

Amid all the various disagreements, as the Democrats debated Cuomo’s impeachment there was one clear point of consensus. Many of the lawmakers were certain that — absent major pressure — Cuomo isn’t leaving office anytime soon. Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a former staffer of his, suggested she’d heard this message from the governor himself.

“I can tell you, I’ve had conversations with him, I’ve had conversations with the teams,” Cruz said of Cuomo. “He’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t want to come off that pedestal.”

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images, Roy Rochlin/Getty Images, Getty Images (2)


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