ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A criminal defense attorney said Thursday that he has been retained by the office of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a federal prosecutor threatened to widen an investigation into the governor’s handling of an anti-corruption commission.
Elkan Abramowitz said Thursday he was hired some time ago to represent the governor’s executive chamber as a whole and not Cuomo or another specific person.
Cuomo’s administration is facing questions about whether it meddled with the commission when a top aide, Larry Schwartz, urged commissioners not to investigate entities with links to Cuomo. Cuomo abruptly shut down the commission this spring. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara criticized the panel’s demise as premature and has vowed to continue its work.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Bharara has threatened to investigate Cuomo for obstruction of justice or witness tampering for allegedly asking members of the commissioners to speak out about their work on the panel.
The newspaper reported that Bharara wrote to the commission’s attorney on Wednesday saying 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.”
Cuomo acknowledged in a statement Thursday that his office had discussions with “relevant parties” about his concerns regarding recent news reports that Schwartz pressured the commission not to investigate entities with ties to Cuomo.
“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 Moreland commission, which the governor created last year to root out corruption.
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 that 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 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 tried to contact all 25 members of the commission on Thursday. 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 Thursday 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, 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 Thursday on the letter or any aspect of the federal investigation.
Abramowitz, whose expertise is white-collar criminal defense, was retained by Cuomo’s office before Bharara’s recent letter, though he would not say when.
Cuomo’s office declined to respond to additional questions about his statement on Thursday, and the governor said he will no longer comment on the matter.
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