Cuomo Faces New Threat: Impeachment Inquiry Led by Democrats
"The move by the State Assembly sets the stage for what could be the state’s first impeachment effort in more than a century.
New York State lawmakers on Thursday opened an impeachment inquiry into Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the surest sign yet that the governor was seeing his party turn against him amid growing scrutiny of a recent series of sexual harassment accusations.
After a three-hour emergency meeting, the State Assembly announced that it would give its judiciary committee broad jurisdiction to investigate allegations of misconduct against Mr. Cuomo, including the sexual harassment claims and his administration’s handling of virus-related deaths of nursing home patients. The decision set the stage for what could be the state’s first impeachment effort in more than a century.
“The reports of accusations concerning the governor are serious,” the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, a Democrat, said in a statement, adding that the “impeachment investigation” will encompass interviewing witnesses, subpoenaing documents and evaluating evidence.
The announcement came on the same day that 59 Democrats in the State Legislature — about 40 percent of the party’s members in the Assembly and the Senate — signed on to a statement demanding that Mr. Cuomo immediately resign in the wake of allegations from women, including current and former aides, who have accused him of harassment or inappropriate behavior.
Hours later, the police in Albany, N.Y., confirmed that they had been notified of one such accusation by the New York State Police, an incident at the Executive Mansion that was characterized as something that might have risen “to the level of a crime.” The move followed the publication of an article in The Times Union of Albany on Wednesday that detailed claims leveled by an unidentified aide to the governor, who accused Mr. Cuomo of groping her at the governor’s mansion, where he lives, late last year.
The rapid-fire developments underscored how Mr. Cuomo’s once ironclad grip on Albany was fast weakening and left veteran lawmakers wondering aloud how he could continue to effectively govern.
“I think it’s hard to be having serious conversations about moving the state in a progressive direction,” said Liz Krueger, a Democratic state senator from Manhattan, “when you don’t know when the next shoe is going to drop.”
Mr. Heastie has signaled that he would not move forward with impeachment without a majority of his own Democratic conference, a common practice for almost all legislation in the 150-seat Assembly, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two-to-one.
The convening of a special judicial committee could signal a shift in Mr. Heastie’s thinking, but it could also give him more time to decide whether to proceed with impeachment. It also may give the governor some breathing room in a scandal that has overwhelmed his administration in recent weeks.
Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has apologized for workplace remarks that he said may have hurt or offended women but has also denied ever touching anyone inappropriately and has urged New Yorkers to await the results of an inquiry by the state attorney general before passing judgment.
His office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
The tumult from the governor’s compounding scandals has significantly complicated negotiations over the state budget, due April 1, when the year’s most important policy issues are decided.
Senate leaders have been in regular contact with leaders in the Assembly about their agenda for the next fiscal year. But the governor’s voice, usually powerful, has been largely absent.
“There’s a lack of leadership from the governor right now,” said Senator Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader in the State Senate, compared with “the way there typically would be at this time.”
The backlash seemed to cap Mr. Cuomo’s turbulent relationship with Democrats in Albany, evidenced by his yearslong working relationship with Republicans and a group of rogue Democrats in the State Senate during his first and second terms. After a progressive wave swept Democrats into complete control of the Legislature in 2018, Mr. Cuomo banked left, signing a raft of reforms to election law, criminal justice rules and rent regulations. But the party’s left wing has never truly trusted him.
His manner of governing — sometimes through heavy-handed tactics of intimidation and retaliation — has alienated potential allies at a moment of need, leaving him increasingly isolated as he navigates the most precarious moment of his tenure.
The fear he once instilled has all but receded, diminishing his perceived power as fellow Democrats scramble to determine his fate, with many now unafraid of openly undermining him.
“He no longer has the credibility to lead or to govern effectively,” said Assemblyman Jonathan G. Jacobson, a Democrat.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a frequent Democratic foil of the governor, joined the calls for his resignation on Thursday, calling the most recent allegation “disgusting” and saying, “He can no longer serve as governor. It’s as simple as that.”
Ms. Krueger, a Democrat and chairwoman of the finance committee, said that the multiple investigations into Mr. Cuomo’s administration had made it difficult to know whom she could talk to at the governor’s office about the budget. She said, for instance, she would no longer speak to Mr. Cuomo or two of his top aides, Melissa DeRosa and Linda Lacewell, because of their involvement in obscuring the death toll in nursing homes.
“I would prefer to be dealing with the replacement governor that I think we need,” she said, referring to Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who would succeed Mr. Cuomo if he resigned or was impeached — an extreme step, unseen in New York since 1913, and still lacking the needed support in the Assembly.
The unsettled terrain could benefit some, as the left flank of his party attempts to push through a bevy of progressive priorities he might have once resisted. Some proposals that Mr. Cuomo previously opposed — to increase taxes on the rich, for example — could gain new momentum in negotiations, according to some lobbyists and progressive activists.
Several of the legislators who signed the statement on Thursday morning calling on Mr. Cuomo to resign had not previously demanded that he step down.
All told, the statement included nearly half of the party’s 43 members in the State Senate, and 40 of the 106 Democrats in the Assembly.
“In light of the governor’s admission of inappropriate behavior and the findings of altered data on nursing home Covid-19 deaths,” read the statement, “he has lost the confidence of the public and the State Legislature.”
Some lawmakers said they thought that calling for his resignation would have no effect and that only the threat of impeachment would lead Mr. Cuomo to step aside. (Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer resigned in 2008 just as lawmakers began draftingarticles for impeachment.)
“I do not believe this governor will resign unless impeachment is on the table,” said Assemblyman Phillip G. Steck, a Democrat representing an area near Albany.
Mr. Heastie has stopped short of saying Mr. Cuomo should step aside, but he agreed on Thursday to call an emergency meeting for Assembly Democrats to discuss “potential paths forward” regarding Mr. Cuomo.
In the hourslong Zoom meeting, lawmakers discussed whether to commence impeachment proceedings — supported by a small but vocal number of Assembly members — or have a committee conduct an investigation into Mr. Cuomo before drafting possible articles of impeachment.
Mr. Heastie told his members he favored the latter option. Some lawmakers who supported immediately commencing impeachment proceedings against Mr. Cuomo described Mr. Heastie’s proposal as a stall tactic designed to buy Mr. Cuomo more time.
As if to prove their point, Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the state Democratic Party and a staunch defender of Mr. Cuomo, released a statement before the closed-doors meeting had even concluded, saying he supported Mr. Heastie’s decision.
“I agree with Speaker Heastie that now is the time for the Legislature to commence its own review of these matters as a part of its constitutional responsibilities,” Mr. Jacobs said.
The meeting took place as Mr. Heastie confronted a rift in his ranks over how to reprimand the governor, with some members favoring more drastic maneuvers than others.
On Monday, for example, 23 women in the Assembly pushed back against calls for Mr. Cuomo’s resignation, signing a letter in support of the investigation being overseen by Letitia James, the state attorney general. They cast it as a vote of confidence in the first Black woman to hold that position.
Democrats in the State Senate have moved more in tandem, with many calling on Mr. Cuomo to resign after the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, demanded his resignation on Sunday.
The new calls for the governor’s resignation followed the damaging allegationsfrom the female aide who accused Mr. Cuomo of groping her in his residence, an accusation the governor strenuously denied.
“I have never done anything like this,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement on Wednesday, in response to an article in The Times Union of Albany, which first reported the aide’s claims. “The details of this report are gut-wrenching. I am not going to speak to the specifics of this or any other allegation given the ongoing review, but I am confident in the result of the attorney general’s report.”
A spokesman for the Albany police said that the woman’s lawyer had been contacted, but no complaint had been filed, and a criminal investigation had not been launched.
Ms. James currently is overseeing an inquiry into the allegations, with investigators expected to issue a public report with their findings. The investigation will also look into accusations from at least two former Cuomo administration staffers, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, who have accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment.
Most top national Democrats, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as President Biden, have said they support waiting for the investigation to conclude before making a determination on Mr. Cuomo’s fate.
Even so, the new allegations appeared to be shifting some state lawmakers’ opinions. “I’ve had enough. Cuomo must be impeached,” Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas, a recently elected left-wing lawmaker, wrote on Twitter late Wednesday in response to the latest allegation.
Charles D. Lavine, the chairman of the Assembly judiciary committee that will lead the investigation, said he had “an open mind, and I’m not biased in favor or against the governor.”
“Investigations take on a life of their own, and there’s no way to predict how long it will take,” he said. “We’ll be working as expeditiously as possible.”