The Worry in Albany

Democrats confess they need a perfect impeachment to get rid of Cuomo.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

In between his duties as speaker of the Assembly, Carl Heastie is known to relax by solving a Rubik’s cube he carries. It’s a fitting hobby for the quiet and fastidious 53-year-old Democrat who finds himself with a far trickier puzzle to solve: how to successfully impeach Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Multiple sources familiar with Heastie’s thinking say he is deeply concerned with getting impeachment exactly right given that Cuomo has resisted calls from all corners to resign, over sexual harassment allegations he vigorously denies, showing he will only be removed from office by force. Heastie badly wants the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee to create an airtight, legally bulletproof, and dispassionate case against Cuomo, so the famously slippery governor can’t somehow escape on a technicality, or distract from the shocking sexual harassment charges against him by nitpicking holes in the legal proceedings. It’s a burden no living legislator has faced before: The last impeachment in New York took place more than a century ago.

Heastie has had a good working relationship with the governor’s office since he became the state’s first Black speaker in 2015, after a stint as Bronx County Democratic Party chairman, but he’s a clear-eyed realist. He knows who the governor is. He knows he’s a bully. Heastie wasn’t at all surprised by the revelations in Attorney General Letitia James’s report, according to sources familiar with his thinking, except for the disturbing harassment allegations by a state trooper in Cuomo’s personal security detail. “It’s hard to be shocked when you’re dealing with these people for this long,” said one of the sources, a Democratic consultant. “The speaker has stared down the barrel of this operation many times over the years.”

Heastie and the judiciary committee have nominally been investigating Cuomo for impeachment since March, but they’d “kind of pumped the brakes” on their inquiry in the months before the report was released last Tuesday, one Democratic Assembly member said.

This member, who spoke on background in order to discuss the famously press-wary and drama-averse speaker’s thinking, blamed “inertia” within the conference for the delay. In a March conference meeting following an avalanche of allegations from women saying they’d been harassed by Cuomo, Heastie and other members expressed a preference for slow-walking the investigation, reflecting internal fears their own members could face the kinds of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations Cuomo did. Heastie noted that “people get accused of things” and “these days any one of us in this place could be accused” in an audiotape of the nearly four-hour conference meeting obtained by Yahoo News.

That attitude shifted immediately when the attorney general’s report was released, some members said. While not all of it was new, the shock of seeing the women’s horrific allegations of abuse and unwanted touching “in black-and-white” galvanized the caucus, according to Assembly member Nily Rozic. Where before there were varying degrees of appetite among the Democrats for seeking Cuomo’s ouster, after Tuesday, “I think we were all on the same page,” Rozic said.

Heastie in the hot seat. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Heastie called a Zoom conference for his members after the report’s release, and some 50 lawmakers spoke over a somber two and a half hours — none of them stood up for Cuomo. “I would say there was wall-to-wall strong support for Tish James and the report, and I don’t think anyone expressed any hesitation about impeachment,” said Assembly member Dick Gottfried. “I think that was, for everybody who spoke, that was the starting premise. The only real question going back and forth was how quickly could we get articles of impeachment written and voted on.”

Members were pleased with the meeting’s result: an unequivocal statement from Heastie that “after our conference this afternoon to discuss the Attorney General’s report … it is abundantly clear to me that the Governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office.”

Now the biggest outstanding source of internal tension within the conference is timing. How many days and weeks does “expeditiously” and “as quickly as possible” translate into?

“In general Carl is thinking, the one thing he’s gonna do is the right thing, and do it right, and not be political, he’s gonna listen to his lawyers and follow the rules. It’s just his thing to be meticulous in these kinds of situations,” said the Democratic consultant. “These are very high stakes. The last thing you want is to make a mistake.”

“Of course you’re dealing with a person who is very vindictive and crazy,” the Democratic consultant said. “You suspect anything you do, he’s gonna try to retaliate.”

Multiple lawmakers who spoke with Intelligencer echoed that assessment that Cuomo could take advantage of any little slip-up or error in the proceedings to embarrass the Assembly and hang on to power. Several members in Tuesday’s meeting were “stressing that it’s really important that this be done as ironclad as can be, because we’re going to be walking into a legal buzzsaw from the governor,” Gottfried said. “We don’t want to put together something that’s going to get cut to ribbons by very talented lawyers on the governor’s side.”

Heastie’s fears about Cuomo’s legal strategy were probably confirmed Friday, when Cuomo’s attorneys — former New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, former Cuomo appointee to the state’s ethics commission Mitra Hormozi, and Cuomo’s personal attorney, Rita Glavin — held a press conference to nitpick the report, criticizing the “unfairness” of the investigation itself and attacking the credibility and motives of two of the women who accused Cuomo of harassment.

So while Assembly Democrats all agree on the need for impeachment, the timing of how quickly to proceed with drawing up articles of impeachment is a remaining source of dissension within the conference. Some conference members don’t understand why the articles haven’t been written already given most of what was in the report on Tuesday has been known for five months. Others think the judiciary committee should take several weeks to make sure they commit no tactical mistakes. The rest fall somewhere in between.

For Cuomo, there’s a political upside to dragging out the proceedings. It appears his lawyers want to call witnesses on his behalf and cross-examine the women accusing him. A swift and uncomplicated impeachment trial would almost certainly result in his removal. The longer it takes, the more time he has to plot out new lines of attack.

“It’s all about due process,” a Senate Democratic source involved in discussions with the Assembly about the impeachment proceeding logistics told Intelligencer. “[Cuomo]’s going to really fight the due process thing, like he’s going to try to win on a technicality. He’s going to try to win in the Assembly.”

Several legislators said they believed the judiciary committee, which has a meeting scheduled Monday, may announce they are concluding or near to concluding their investigation that day. It has already given the governor’s office until Friday to submit evidence, and Senate Democrats hope that articles of impeachment, which would likely include, at minimum, charges involving both the sexual harassment allegations and his alleged misuse of state resources in writing his book about the COVID pandemic, will be drafted by Tuesday of the following week, August 17, and voted on within a matter of days, if not the same week. If the Assembly votes to impeach Cuomo, he would temporarily step down by law and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul would become acting governor. A Senate trial could begin within a month after that to determine if Cuomo would be removed from office permanently.

“It’s very serious stuff, not to be taken lightly, but at the same time, I think the bulk of Assembly members very much want this to move forward as quickly as possible,” Gottfried, the assemblyman, said.

Sources in the legislature said the Senate, which sets the rules of any impeachment trial, wants as simple a proceeding as possible. Behind the scenes, Cuomo’s people “have been saying they want all the people to come in, they want all the women to come in,” said one Senate Democrat. “Cuomo’s supporters are saying, ‘we have a right to confront our accusers.’”

Lawmakers are wary of letting the proceedings drag out because, as Gottfried put it, “I think there’s a little bit of concern about ‘who knows what he may do’ in the interim.”

And then there’s the matter of the safety of the women who have accused him, some of whom are still working in state government.

On Friday, Cuomo’s attorneys were unable, for example, to say definitively whether the unnamed state trooper who’d accused Cuomo of inappropriately touching her was still serving on the governor’s protective detail.

That forms another strong argument for speed in the impeachment proceedings, Gottfried said. “The one thing that was frequently talked about in the conference as compelling speed was that many people mentioned that, as long as [Cuomo]’s in the executive chamber, it is an unsafe working place for women,” Gottfried said.

“That adds a very real element of emergency here.”

Democrats Confess: We Need Perfect Impeachment to End Cuomo