The aggressive approach that helped New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) become a rising star in his own party who was often touted as a potential 2016 presidential candidate may have contributed to the most serious scandal he’s faced during his three-and-a-half years in office.
Cuomo’s hard-charging, controlling management style initially earned him a number of major victories, including same-sex marriage legislation and streak of on-time budgets after years of dysfunction in the legislature.
However, his fortunes turned last week when the New York Times published a blockbuster story alleging Cuomo interfered in the work of an anti-corruption commission that he established. Despite Cuomo vowing the commission would be completely independent and could even investigate him, the report said an aide the governor’s office repeatedly moved to squash subpoenas issued to his allies and block investigations that could be politically embarrassing.
Cuomo’s alleged meddling in the commission came as little surprise to longtime observers of the governor who spoke to Business Insider anonymously out of fear of reprisal. One New York strategist immediately pointed to a quote from a former top aide to Cuomo, Steven Cohen, that is famous in New York political circles when asked about Cuomo’s methods.
“We operate at two speeds here: Get along and kill,” Cohen said.
The strategist said described the scandal over the commission as a result of this unique intensity and Cuomo’s penchant for micromanagement.
“As one high-ranking Cuomo person put it, they operate on two speeds: get along and kill. But they forgot about the ‘get-along’ part,” the strategist said. “They are reeling now from a series of unforced errors on their part.”
One aide in the state legislature similarly said lawmakers feel constant pressure from the “second floor” of the capitol building in Albany, New York, where the governor’s office is located.
“There’s this pathological need on the second floor for exact control — control at a level that’s not really achievable, and not even healthy, over the long-term,” said one.
Another legislature aide echoed the idea Cuomo hurts himself by attempting to exact “complete control” over the state legislature.
“That’s his big weakness: He can’t give up control of anything. Whether it’s budget negotiations, whether it’s any piece of legislation, he has to have complete control,” the second aide said, citing Cuomo’s recent, last-minute effort to make the state’s medical marijuana legislation more restrictive as one of many examples. “The guy wants to be in everything. The problem is when you want to be in everything, when sh** goes wrong, you’re in trouble: You’re left holding bag.”
Cuomo is also known for making nighttime off-record calls to members of the media to quibble with unflattering stories about him. New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters described this habit as part of a “pattern of intimidation” in an appearance On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.
“As somebody who spent two-and-a-half years in Albany like I did, one of the aspects that you most clearly recognise is this pattern of intimidation from Cuomo’s office. I mean, here’s a guy who was famously for calling up reporters on the phone directly and just haranguing them,” Peters said.
There are also numerous examples of Cuomo’s aggressiveness in his political operation.
Business Insider reported last week that the Cuomo campaign had volunteers stage protests against his underdog Republican rival in this year’s gubernatorial race and his long-shot rival in the Democratic primary. This move baffled many political operatives as conventional wisdom holds that it’s best for incumbents to ignore a relatively unknown opponent.
Cuomo’s efforts to eliminate his political opposition often appear to come in the form of a barrage of statements from his supporters. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was trying to pressure Cuomo into accepting a city-based tax hike to fund a pre-K expansion, the Cuomo camp reportedly warned de Blasio’s supporters to back off and moved to thwart the mayor on a separate educational issue. At the same time, reporters received a series of unsolicited statements
slamming the de Blasio tax proposal from officials from all across the state.
After Cuomo’s primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout, hired a staffer who had been previously criticised for making anti-Israel statements on Facebook, Business Insider and other media outlets received a number of statements taking her to task for the hire.
Following five days of silence after the Times published its story on Cuomo’s alleged interference with the anti-corruption commission, the governor emerged to make his first public statement denying any wrongdoing on Monday. At the same time, commission members issued a batch of statements insisting Cuomo had not meddled in its investigations.
“I reject the view that Governor Cuomo interfered with the Commission’s work, or that he told the Commission what to do. I do not think that any commissioner would have allowed such a thing,” one commission member, Makau Mutua, a dean at SUNY Buffalo Law School, sent in an unsolicited statement to Business Insider on Monday.
Those statements — which contradict a number of exhaustive reports in the Times, Daily News, and other outlets — appear to have resulted in Cuomo’s latest headache. According to the Times, at least some of the statements were “prompted” by Cuomo or his staff and one member refused to provide one and was upset by the request. In a sharply-worded letter that was reported by the Times Wednesday night, U.S. Attorney Bharara warned the commission working with Cuomo’s office to distribute supportive statements could constitute criminal witness tampering in the ongoing investigation.
“We have reason to believe a number of commissioners recently have been contacted about the commission’s work, and some commissioners have been asked to issue public statements characterising events and facts regarding the commission’s operation,” the Bharara letter read. “To the extent anyone attempts to influence or tamper with a witness’s recollection of events relevant to our investigation, including the recollection of a commissioner or one of the commission’s employees, we request that you advise our office immediately, as we must consider whether such actions constitute obstruction of justice or tampering with witnesses that violate federal law.”
Cuomo responded to Bharara’s letter with a statement of his own wherein he admitted his office had discussions with commission members before they released what he described as “personal statements to correct the record.”
“We are aware of the letter sent by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. The New York Times published a story last week that generated a wave of news reports across the state, some with numerous inaccuracies, and we wanted to correct them,” said Cuomo. “We discussed these concerns with relevant parties. Several members of the Commission … issued personal statements to correct the record. These statements reiterated comments they had made over the past year. As I believe the U.S. Attorney has made it clear that ongoing public dialogue is not helpful to his investigation, we will have no additional comment on the matter.”
In other words, a federal prosecutor viewed efforts by Cuomo’s office to control the media narrative surrounding the commission scandal as a potential criminal act. Now, Cuomo is in hot water for allegedly micromanaging his response to a scandal based on his own micromanagement.
His office did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.
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