When Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie earlier this month began an impeachment investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo over sexual harassment and other allegations, he was the first Speaker to do so in 108 years. In 1913, Gov. William Sulzer became the first and, so far, only governor in New York’s history to be removed from office by the Legislature. A Buffalo native well connected to New York State politics literally wrote the book about what happened over a century ago.
Heastie authorized the Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment inquiry, and he chose an outside law firm to help with interviewing witnesses and perhaps drafting articles of impeachment, a document similar to a criminal complaint that would be presented to the Senate during a trial.
The Speaker, when pressed for more details about how exactly the impeachment might proceed, admits that he and the rest of the Assembly are, essentially, winging it.
“This hasn’t been done in almost 100 years,” Heastie said. “So none of us were here when that happened.”
There is at least one person who does know the details of what happened the last time, when former Gov. Sulzer was impeached in 1913. Jack O’Donnell, a Buffalo- and New York City-based public affairs consultant, wrote a book on the topic, called Bitten by the Tiger.
O’Donnell is deeply embedded in New York politics. He’s worked for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
“Who then got in trouble and they said he’d be the first governor impeached since William Sulzer,” O’Donnell said.
Spitzer resigned over a prostitution scandal.
O’Donnell also worked for former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who eventually went to prison on a corruption conviction.
“And when he got in trouble they said he’d be the first state official to be impeached since William Sulzer,” he said. “So I thought, I really should find out a little about this guy.”
O’Donnell discovered that most of the present-day recollections of the impeachment are wrong.
According to legend, Sulzer was a product of the powerful Tammany Hall, which helped him get elected in November 1912. But he got in trouble with the political bosses shortly after taking office for trying to enact reform and was punished by them.
O’Donnell said it’s true that Sulzer tried to buck the powerful political machine.
“Sulzer decides he’s bigger than Tammany Hall and decides to create his own party, his own following, his own machine,” O’Donnell said. “And then he and Tammany get into a fight."
But Sulzer wasn’t completely innocent of wrong doing. He had likely embezzled $10,000 out of his own campaign funds, a lot of money for those days.
“When you read the trial transcripts, there was evidence after evidence that he took money from the campaign fund and put it in the stock market,” said O’Donnell, who said Sulzer also falsified camping documents that omitted contributions from other politicians and brewery magnates, among others.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in most observers’ minds that he was guilty,” O’Donnell said, “even if it was politics that brought on the fight.”
Sulzer was removed from office on Oct. 17, 1913. He had been governor just nine and a half months.
There’s still a long way to go before Cuomo could become the second governor in state history to face impeachment.
If the assembly inquiry leads to a vote, a majority of 76 votes are required to impeach. The case would then be heard by state senators, along with the seven members of the state Court of Appeals. All of the judges were appointed by Cuomo.
Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins would not be allowed to participate, since she is second in the line of succession for governor, after Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. In a Senate trial, a two-thirds vote, or 46 of the senators and judges, is required to convict.