ALBANY - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced more questions about his handling of a special anti-corruption commission today after Manhattan's federal prosecutor threatened to investigate his office for possible witness tampering and obstruction for allegedly encouraging members of the panel to speak out on Cuomo's behalf.
The New York Times reports that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who took over the commission's investigations after Cuomo dismantled it, wrote to the commission's attorney Wednesday saying he has "reason to believe" some commissioners were asked to release public statements on the commission's work.
Cuomo acknowledged in a statement today that his office had discussions with "relevant parties" about his concerns regarding news reports that his top aide, Larry Schwartz, pressured the commission not to investigate entities with ties to Cuomo.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo answers questions in Lake Placid in November 2013.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara
Patrick Barrett of Lake Placid, a Moreland commission member, told the Associated Press he was not contacted by anyone on behalf of Cuomo and said he saw no indication that Cuomo tried to meddle with the commission's work.
(Enterprise photo — Matthew Turner)
"We discussed these concerns," Cuomo said in his statement. "Several members of the commission ... issued personal statements to correct the public record."
The prosecutor's warning is the sharpest exchange yet in the deepening controversy over Cuomo's handling of the 25-member commission, known as a Moreland commission, which the governor created last year and abruptly disbanded this spring. Bharara, who has criticized Cuomo's decision to dismantle the commission, has vowed to continue its work.
The newspaper reports that Bharara said in his letter that his office will investigate any attempts to "influence or tamper" with the recollection of commission members, "as we must consider whether such actions constitute obstruction of justice or tampering with witnesses that violate federal law."
Bharara's office would not comment on the letter when contacted by The Associated Press.
On Monday, five commissioners spoke out to defend the panel's work and independence, accounts which backed up Cuomo's assertions that his office did not interfere. Cuomo has pointed to the statements as evidence that there was no interference, specifically one from Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, the commission's co-chairman, who wrote "nobody 'interfered' with me or my co-chairs."
"He said he made all the decisions and they made them independently. Period. So, that's that," Cuomo said Wednesday.
The five commissioners spoke out on the same day Cuomo first publicly addressed allegations that Schwartz had meddled with the commission's work. Cuomo has said that Schwartz's actions did not amount to interference because his requests to the commission were ultimately rejected.
The AP contacted all 25 members of the commission today. Several did not return messages. Some declined to comment when asked if they had been contacted recently by a Cuomo representative.
Richard Briffault, a commission member and Columbia Law School professor, said today he was never approached on Cuomo's behalf to speak in defense of the commission. His documents and electronic records have been subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney's office, but no one from Bharara's office has asked to talk with him, he said.
Briffault declined to comment about whether anyone in the Cuomo administration tried to influence the commission not to investigate people with ties to the governor.
Another commission member, Patrick Barrett of Lake Placid, said he was not contacted by anyone on behalf of Cuomo and said he saw no indication that Cuomo tried to meddle with the commission's work.
Michael Koenig, an outside attorney retained to represent the commission, declined to comment today on the letter or any aspect of the federal investigation.
Cuomo's office declined to respond to additional questions about his statement today and the governor himself said he will no longer be commenting on the matter.
"The U.S. Attorney has made it clear that ongoing public dialogue is not helpful to his investigation," Cuomo said in his statement. "We will have no additional comment."