Assembly's choice of impeachment firm faces criticism

Mar 19, 2021

The New York State Legislature took another step this week in its impeachment investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo when the Assembly announced it’s hired a private law firm to assist the Judiciary Committee in its inquiry. But that choice was immediately condemned by a lawyer for one of the alleged victims, who said the firm has ties to Cuomo that could taint the investigation.

When Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP would help the impeachment inquiry look into multiple allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo, he described it as a “premier law firm with offices around the world and expertise in sensitive investigations.”

“Hiring Davis Polk will give the committee the experience, independence and resources needed to handle this important investigation in a thorough and expeditious manner,” Heastie said in a statement.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie meets with reporters at the state Capitol on March 15.
Credit Karen DeWitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent

The legal team will include Greg Andres, a former federal prosecutor who recently worked as an assistant counsel to Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation related to former President Donald Trump. He also helped secure the conviction of former Trump associate Paul Manafort.

But Debra Katz, the lawyer for one of Cuomo’s alleged victims, Charlotte Bennett, saw some warning flags in the choice. She said the firm has some associations that could call its objectivity into question.

Dennis Glazer, the husband of the state’s chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Janet DiFiore, was a partner at Davis Polk for 30 years. Cuomo appointed DiFiore to her judgeship. She also served as the chair of the state’s public ethics commission, an entity controlled by the governor. Glazer was appointed by Cuomo to serve on the Board of SUNY Purchase and the state’s casino siting board. If the Assembly does vote to impeach, DiFiore would preside over a Senate impeachment trial.

For all of those reasons, Katz said in a statement that the choice of the firm “is an unacceptable conflict of interest.”

Another alleged victim, Lindsey Boylan, called the Assembly’s investigation a “sham” and said in a tweet that she won’t participate.

Credit Lindsay Boylan / Twitter

Heastie, responding to the criticism, said the attorneys were thoroughly vetted by Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Lavine and he has confidence that they will be fair.

“I don’t believe there’s going to be any conflict,” Heastie said. “I have the utmost confidence that Chair Lavine and the rest of the Judiciary Committee and this firm will give us a thorough and fair investigation.”

Heastie also reacted to fallout from a leaked recording of a private meeting among Democratic Assembly members, reported by Yahoo News. In the meeting, some members pushed to move directly to impeachment, saying the Judiciary Committee investigation would have no real impact, and that Heastie was just buying time for the embattled Cuomo and giving him some cover.

Heastie said he doesn’t know who disclosed the contents of the private meeting, and he accused the leaker of “undermining democracy.”

“It’s disappointing, very disappointing, to me that I have members of my own conference that don’t respect that,” Heastie said.

And he said most of the Democrats in the meeting said they supported the investigation.

“The vast, overwhelming majority of the members wanted a process that dealt with due process,” he said. “So I wouldn’t characterize it as a split."

The Assembly’s impeachment inquiry will not be limited to the sexual harassment allegations against the governor. Heastie said the investigation will also look into accusations that Cuomo and his aides covered up the actual number of nursing home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. That controversy is the subject of a federal investigation.

He also said the committee will look into a report by the Albany Times Union that raised questions about the structural soundness of the state Thruway’s former Tappan Zee Bridge. The bridge has been renamed the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, after the governor’s father.