By Susanne Craig, Thomas Kaplan and William Rashbaum July 31, 2014
In an escalation of the confrontation between the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over the governor’s cancellation of his own anticorruption commission, Mr. Bharara has threatened to investigate the Cuomo administration for possible obstruction of justice or witness tampering.
The warning, in a sharply worded letter from Mr. Bharara’s office, came after several members of the panel issued public statements defending the governor’s handling of the panel, known as the Moreland Commission, which Mr. Cuomo created last year with promises of cleaning up corruption in state politics but shut down abruptly in March.
Mr. Bharara’s office has been investigating the shutdown of the commission, and pursuing its unfinished corruption cases, since April.
In the letter, sent late Wednesday afternoon to a lawyer for the panel, prosecutors alluded to a number of statements made by its members on Monday, which generally defended Mr. Cuomo’s handling of the commission. The statements were released on the same day Mr. Cuomo first publicly responded to a report in The New York Times that described how he and his aides had compromised the commission’s work.
At least some of those statements were prompted by calls from the governor or his emissaries, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation who were unwilling to be named for fear of reprisal.
One commissioner who received a call from an intermediary on behalf of the governor’s office said he found the call upsetting and declined to make a statement.
The letter from prosecutors, which was read to The New York Times, says, “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 characterizing events and facts regarding the commission’s operation.”
“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.”
Reached late Wednesday night, a spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter from Mr. Bharara’s office. A lawyer for the commission declined to comment on the letter.
What an embarrassment to the executive branch of our state that the US Attorney has to browbeat our governor into avoiding a coverup.
The Times reported last week that Mr. Cuomo’s office had deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting when it focused on groups with political ties to Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who is seeking re-election, or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.
The Times’s article prompted condemnations from government watchdog groups and newspaper editorial boards. Mr. Cuomo, facing perhaps the harshest scrutiny of his three and a half years as governor, remained out of public view for five days as criticism mounted.
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Late Sunday night, Mr. Cuomo’s office announced that he would make an appearance in Buffalo on Monday morning, setting in motion what appeared to be a coordinated effort by Mr. Cuomo and his aides to present a defense for their conduct.
Just hours before Mr. Cuomo faced reporters, one of the co-chairs of the commission, William J. Fitzpatrick, released a three-page statement in which he asserted that “nobody ‘interfered’ with me or my co-chairs.”
Facing questions from the news media, Mr. Cuomo repeatedly cited the statement by Mr. Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney. The governor called the statement “very helpful,” explaining that Mr. Fitzpatrick “knows better than anyone else what happened with the Moreland Commission.”
“Now we have facts that we can actually deal with, right?” Mr. Cuomo said.
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Mr. Fitzpatrick’s statement seemed at odds with frustration he had expressed to colleagues last year; in one email reported by The Times, he wrote that Mr. Cuomo’s office “needs to understand this is an INDEPENDENT commission and needs to be treated as such.” Mr. Cuomo dismissed that email as “snippets of conversations.”
Mr. Fitzpatrick’s statement on Monday also appeared to contradict previous statements he made to federal prosecutors, according to three people briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak on the record. Mr. Fitzpatrick did not immediately return a call late Wednesday seeking comment.
Also Monday, Thomas P. Zugibe, the Rockland County district attorney and a commission member, released a statement in which he asserted that the panel “did incredible work” and said, “At all times it was clear that all investigatory decisions were within the exclusive discretion of the Commission.”
Another commission member, Frank A. Sedita III, the Erie County district attorney, issued a statement that acknowledged there had been “rumors” that Mr. Cuomo’s office had sought to block the issuance of some subpoenas. But he said that Mr. Cuomo’s office ultimately “agreed not to interfere with our work.”
And in an interview with Gannett, Gerald F. Mollen, the Broome County district attorney, said he believed that he and his colleagues had “absolute independence to go wherever the commission wanted and the governor could not stop us if we choose to go somewhere.”
The letter noted “the commissioners and the commission’s employees are important witnesses in this ongoing investigation, and information from those with personal knowledge of facts of the investigation is highly material to that investigation.”
The letter warned that tampering with the recollections of commission members or employees could be a crime, and directed them to preserve any records of “actual or attempted contact” along those lines.
James Margolin, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office, declined to comment Wednesday night.