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Farrow writes: "In April, 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo placed a call to the White House and reached Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama."

Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo. (photo: Stephanie Keith/The New York Times)
Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo. (photo: Stephanie Keith/The New York Times)

Andrew Cuomo's War Against a Federal Prosecutor

By Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker

10 August 21

A call to the Obama White House that some legal experts say is impeachable fits a pattern of the Governor smearing those who scrutinize him.

n April, 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo placed a call to the White House and reached Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. Cuomo was, as one official put it, “ranting and raving.” He had announced that he was shuttering the Moreland Commission, a group that he had convened less than a year earlier to root out corruption in New York politics. After Cuomo ended the group’s inquiries, Preet Bharara, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, issued letters instructing commissioners to preserve documents and had investigators from his office interview key witnesses. On the phone with Jarrett, Cuomo railed against Bharara. “This guy’s out of control,” a member of the White House legal team briefed on the call that day recalled Cuomo telling Jarrett. “He’s your guy.”

Jarrett ended the conversation after only a few minutes. Any effort by the White House to influence investigations by a federal prosecutor could constitute criminal obstruction of justice. “He did, in fact, call me and raise concerns about the commission,” Jarrett told me. “As soon as he started talking, and I figured out what he was talking about, I shut down the conversation.” Although Cuomo fumed about Bharara’s efforts, he did not make any specific request before Jarrett ended the call. Nevertheless, Jarrett was alarmed and immediately walked to the office of the White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, to report the conversation. Ruemmler agreed that the call was improper, and told Jarrett that she had acted correctly in ending the conversation without responding to Cuomo’s complaints. “I thought it was highly inappropriate,” the member of the White House’s legal team told me. “It was a stupid call for him to make.” Ruemmler reported the incident to the Deputy Attorney General, James M. Cole, who also criticized the call. “He shouldn’t have been doing that. He’s trying to exert political pressure on basically a prosecution or an investigation,” Cole told me. “So Cuomo trying to use whatever muscle he had with the White House to do it was a nonstarter and probably improper.”

Cuomo’s outreach to the White House may have opened him up to sanction for violating state ethics rules and could be relevant in an ongoing impeachment inquiry by the New York State Assembly. “It’s highly inappropriate and potentially illegal,” Jennifer Rodgers, a former prosecutor in Bharara’s office and an adjunct clinical professor at N.Y.U. Law School, told me. Jessica Levinson, the director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute, added, “If he, in fact, called a U.S. Attorney’s bosses and implied, ‘Stop this guy from looking into me,’ that could easily amount to an impeachable offense.”

White House officials at the time believed that prosecutors might want to interview Jarrett and assess whether the call had risen to the level of illegality. Instead, the Department of Justice notified Bharara. “Everybody basically just said we’re not going to do anything—we’re not going to stop Preet,” Cole said. “The investigation is the investigation, and I don’t care if Andrew Cuomo calls us or not.” Bharara’s office chose not to pursue charges, but he recalled being alarmed. “Andrew Cuomo has no qualms, while he’s under investigation by the sitting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, trying to call the White House to call me off,” Bharara told me. “Trump did that. That’s an extraordinary thing, from my perspective.”

Elkan Abramowitz, an attorney for Cuomo, said that Bharara’s office had asked Cuomo whether he’d had contact with the White House about Bharara and that Cuomo acknowledged that he had, without providing specifics. Abramowitz added, “If Bharara thought this was obstruction of justice, he would have said so at the time.” A spokesperson for Cuomo declined to answer follow-up questions, saying only, of the allegations that Cuomo interfered with the Moreland Commission, “This threadbare narrative has been litigated and re-litigated to death and no wrongdoing was found.”

Cuomo’s vindictiveness, his attacks on officials who defy him, and his attempts to undermine inquiries about him are recurring themes in a report released last week by the New York attorney general, Letitia James. The report documents both allegations from women who say that Cuomo harassed them and claims that Cuomo and his inner circle threatened and smeared employees and political enemies. It is replete with accounts of state employees who say that they feared they would lose their jobs if they attempted to report misconduct by the Governor or his allies. It concludes that Cuomo and his team’s disclosure of confidential files related to one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan, constituted illegal retaliation. It notes that Cuomo’s staff pressed former employees to call and secretly record women who had made allegations, apparently to collect information to use against them. When the recordings did not serve that end, Cuomo’s staff destroyed them—an act that legal experts said could also figure in ongoing inquiries. As the attorney general’s investigators worked on the report, Cuomo and his allies worked to discredit its authors; his aide Rich Azzopardi, who was instrumental in the disclosure of Boylan’s files, publicly suggested that James, the attorney general, had designs on Cuomo’s job. “There were attempts to undermine and to politicize this investigation, and there were attacks on me as well as members of the team, which I find offensive,” James said last week, as she announced the results of the probe.

Long before Cuomo’s efforts to discredit reports that he had sexually harassed women, he repeatedly interfered in another state probe that threatened him, the Moreland Commission. “Every single thing I’ve seen in the past couple of months was foreshadowed,” Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor who served as the Moreland Commission’s chief of investigations, told me, in her first on-the-record comments about her work on the panel. The commission began with a sweeping mandate from Cuomo to probe systemic corruption in political campaigns and state government. However, interviews with a dozen former officials with ties to the commission, along with hundreds of pages of internal documents, text messages, and personal notes obtained by The New Yorker, reveal that Cuomo and his team used increasingly heavy-handed tactics to limit inquiries that might implicate him or his allies. “He did not want an investigation into his own dark-money contributions,” Perry recalled. “He was pulling back subpoenas that were gonna go to friends and supporters of his—it was just really unbelievable,” Kathleen Rice, a U.S. representative from Long Island who served as one of the commission’s co-chairs, added.

Both Perry and Rice said that they had not spoken out until now because Cuomo or members of his inner circle had threatened their careers, and because they had seen his team successfully retaliate against others. “I saw them destroy people,” Perry said. “And I did really fear that it could be me.” Claims that Cuomo was interfering with Moreland first surfaced in the press before the commission was shuttered, in early 2014; the Times powerfully documented examples of such interference later that year. The panel did not uncover evidence implicating Cuomo in personal graft, but several of the people involved said that their work was beginning to unravel a web of campaign donations around Cuomo, and could have ensnared his allies and laid bare his loyalties to special interests. “As we began to peel away the layers of the onion, he was behind everything,” Rice said. “I mean, the corruption began and ended at his doorstep.” Rice, Perry, and others also said they believed that Cuomo’s thwarting of the commission’s work, using a playbook that he subsequently employed for years, might constitute a form of corruption. “He obstructed, he lied, he bullied, he threatened,” Perry told me. “It’s an M.O., and all of the different components of it—he tried them on for size with Moreland.”

In early 2013, before Perry joined the Moreland Commission, she met with Cuomo at least twice to discuss leadership roles in the state government, including that of inspector general. She had worked for years as a federal prosecutor in Bharara’s office, serving as the deputy chief of its criminal division and successfully prosecuting a billion-dollar disability-fraud case. In interviews conducted over the past several months, Perry said that Cuomo unleashed a “full-on charm offensive” during their meetings, marked by the same disregard for boundaries later chronicled in the attorney general’s report. In one meeting, he told her about his flagging sex life with his long-term girlfriend, which prompted Perry to change the subject. In another, he gave her a private tour of the capitol building and invited her to the Executive Mansion. “He was definitely very, very personal and fairly intrusive,” she said. She ultimately declined to pursue the inspector-general job, in part because she believed that she was being asked to hold herself out as an independent actor while quietly remaining loyal to the Governor. “I had the sense that the Governor would want me under his thumb,” she said.

But, several months later, when Cuomo’s team approached her about taking on a leading role on the Moreland Commission, she was persuaded by the urgency of its mission. A report issued by the commission described an “epidemic” of graft in Albany, noting that one in every eleven state legislators in recent years had left office under accusations of unethical or criminal conduct. By some measures, New York continues to rank among the most corrupt states in the country. “It really did seem like we had this opportunity to do some real good,” Perry recalled. She took the job after being assured of the commission’s power to issue subpoenas and refer matters for criminal investigation. A former member of the commission’s staff told me that Cuomo had underestimated Perry’s independence. “Otherwise, I don’t think she would have been so favored to take on the Moreland Commission position,” the former staffer said. “It’s just been sort of his way, to try and put in people who he thinks he can control. And, when that backfires, the way he responds is very ugly.”

Rice, who was then the district attorney for Nassau County, recalled that she, too, was initially hesitant to join the commission. Cuomo had a history of establishing oversight panels that were largely ineffectual and tightly controlled by him. Rice had previously served on a commission that Cuomo created in 2012 to investigate failures of planning and infrastructure after Hurricane Sandy. Rice said that her recommendations had been removed from that commission’s final report by Cuomo’s team without her consent. In the summer of 2013, Steve Cohen, a longtime Cuomo adviser, called to enlist her on the new panel. “No, thanks,” she recalled telling him, adding that the Sandy probe was “a terrible, terrible experience.” But Rice, who had used her position as Nassau County district attorney to prosecute a number of political-corruption cases, was ultimately convinced, like Perry, that the work of the new commission could be made independent through its power to issue subpoenas. She agreed to serve as one of the co-chairs, overseeing twenty-two prosecutors, academics, and lawyers who would contribute to its findings.

However, when the commission began pursuing specific targets, the Governor’s office pushed back almost immediately. The commission wanted to look at the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an agency created by Cuomo, in 2011, that had been accused of being both ineffective and under the influence of the Governor. (The body would have been responsible for determining any sanctions related to Cuomo’s White House call.) Late that July, Perry told me, Cohen called her and said that Cuomo’s team did not want the commission to issue subpoenas related to the ethics group or to “suggest it is not doing what it is supposed to be doing.”

When Perry’s investigators continued to pursue the matter, she recalled, “there was a huge fight over it” with Regina Calcaterra, a Cuomo loyalist and former securities lawyer who served as the commission’s executive director. Several staffers said they believed that Calcaterra was monitoring their activities and reporting on them to Cuomo’s team. One lawyer working for the commission recalled seeing Calcaterra inspecting the team’s trash cans and desks after business hours. In response to the inquiries about the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Calcaterra called Perry and shouted at her, saying that they would anger Cuomo’s team. According to the notes that Perry took during her time on the commission, Calcaterra demanded that Perry “tell her every single thing that happens so that she can tell the second floor,” a reference to the location of the Governor’s office in the state capitol. (Calcaterra said, in a statement, that she was in “full support” of issuing a subpoena to the ethics group, “regardless of the Governor’s Office’s views.” She also said that she had “suffered significant trauma” owing to negative portrayals of her by commission colleagues in the press.)

Soon after, Calcaterra summoned Perry to her office, where Larry Schwartz, another Cuomo loyalist, called and “flipped the fuck out” over speakerphone, Perry said. “Larry screamed at me for not understanding political sensitivities,” she said, addressing her “like a child” and repeatedly asking whether she understood him. (In a statement, Schwartz said, of Perry, “I had many conversations with her. One of the challenges of her hiring was her lack of experience or knowledge about how State Government worked. As a result, I had numerous conversations with Danya and others on her staff to download as much as I could. My aim was to avoid wasted or fruitless efforts. I was not always successful.”) In her notes, Perry wrote, of the episode, “2d floor went bananas.” The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, she added, “was the Gov’s creature and his people were on it.”

The following month, Perry was in a conference room conducting interviews when she started getting texts from a commission staffer informing her that Calcaterra was frantically attempting to recall process servers who were delivering subpoenas. “Regina is running up and down the hall saying we have to pull back the subpoenas,” the staffer wrote in an e-mail, which was first disclosed by New York. “Walmart, FedEx, and respective lobbyists.” Walmart and FedEx had both lobbied for favorable provisions in state legislation, and the commission had been investigating whether the companies’ contributions in Albany breached ethical or legal guidelines. Both companies also have connections to Cuomo: members of the Walton family have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his campaigns in recent years. FedEx, too, had donated to Cuomo, before he decided whether to support legislation that could have significantly threatened the company’s bottom line. (Spokespeople for Walmart and FedEx both denied any improper lobbying.) The Times later reported that Schwartz was also involved in attempts to get the commission to withdraw subpoenas, including ones directed at Buying Time, an advertising firm that had worked on Cuomo’s campaign, and the Real Estate Board of New York, a lobbying outfit whose members included significant donors to the Governor. (Schwartz said he believed that “the focus of the Commission was on the State Legislature, not the Executive Branch,” and that he considered subpoenas to entities associated with the state executive branch to be inappropriate. He said that a committee official he had reached had agreed with his judgment and, with the staff, “made the decision to pull back on those subpoenas.”) Perry refused to back down, and all of the subpoenas were ultimately issued, but Cuomo allies warned her that the Governor’s office was displeased. “This is not the U.S. Attorney’s office,” she recalled Cohen telling her. She was being “too independent and aggressive,” another executive staffer said.

Rice said that, after she backed Perry, she also faced swift blowback, some of it delivered in calls from Cuomo, who argued that Rice had a conflict of interest, because the commission would be scrutinizing her donors. “The threats were almost from the very beginning, and I’ll never forget the call. He said, ‘I want you to step down,’ ” she told me. “Because I always sided with Danya. And I said no.”

The Governor’s allies also created obstacles after the commission retained K2 Intelligence, a private investigation firm, to analyze databases of political contributions and identify improper special-interest donations. The firm agreed to do the work at a discounted price, according to Perry, but the contract was terminated after a few months. Calcaterra said that there were concerns about the company’s performance and a desire to create a fairer competitive-bidding process. No company was subsequently hired. Perry, Rice, and several other people involved said that they believed K2’s work was halted because it was beginning to yield results that were uncomfortable for the Cuomo Administration. “They started spitting out some great avenues for investigation,” Perry said. “And that’s when Regina just cut their contract.” Rice added, “The second floor didn’t like what K2 was able to do, just looking at incontrovertible data.” A former K2 employee told me, “The short version is that Cuomo kind of shut it down when the investigation was kind of pointing toward a lot of his cronies in the real-estate world—getting a little too close to home.”

As Perry’s frustration mounted, she complained to Cohen in an August 28, 2013, text message: “it is v clear to everyone that the 2d flr is directing every thing we do. We have moved forward on exactly nothing as a result.” She made similar complaints to the wider group of commissioners at a regular briefing the following day. Cuomo allies in Perry’s orbit began to warn her of the potential consequences to her career. Cohen told her that Calcaterra was “torching” Perry when reporting back to Cuomo, according to her notes from the time. (Calcaterra told me, “It is true that Ms. Perry and I often disagreed professionally on various aspects of the Commission’s efforts as colleagues will certainly do from time to time.”) In a text, Cohen wrote, “Get out of the line of fire on this. Trust trust trust me.” Cohen also warned in a call that Cuomo could use the press and the legal community to “make my life very difficult,” Perry recalled. (Perry said that she believed Cohen was advising her as a friend. “He was conveying what would happen, and that he didn’t want to see it happen,” she said.) An attorney for Cuomo told her that she had to “get in line” or Cuomo would “scorch the ends of the earth to destroy me,” Perry recalled. “Don’t fight this,” the attorney said, according to Perry’s notes. “This will all be easier once your spirit is broken.” (The attorney said that he could not recall the exchanges and that Cuomo had been supportive of the commission.) In a text in September, Perry wrote to Cohen, “I feel like I am in a snake pit, and don’t know which way to turn . . . this is honestly one of the hardest things I have been through.”

That month, Perry was summoned to a meeting with Cuomo, in his office in Manhattan. With Calcaterra and Schwartz present, Cuomo told Perry that “no criminal cases” should come from the commission’s investigations. “He said it was not our purpose, as there were already ‘nine thousand prosecutors’ looking at corruption,” Perry recalled. “It was shocking to me,” she added. “I had always been told and believed that, if we found criminal conduct, we would be referring it and not sweeping it under the rug.” Cuomo complained that the commission’s subpoenas had been “distracting,” Perry recalled, and that she should stop issuing them. As she remembers the exchange, he told her that the commission should file a report based on its work to date, and support his efforts to enact a law that would include modest reforms. “He was sort of prescribing what he wanted the report to look like, and that this was all about getting the media to like it,” Perry said. “He was basically saying, ‘We’ll get this law, and then we’re done. We’re shutting down.’ ”

Cuomo mocked the commission’s co-chairs, Perry recalled, calling Rice an “angry” Irishwoman with an “axe to grind.” Rice and Perry, he said, were “a problem.” At the end of the meeting, Cuomo pulled Perry aside, showed her a picture of himself on a motorcycle, and told her about a road trip he planned to make upstate. Perry found Cuomo’s sudden shift to a friendly tone hollow; she said that the Governor had made it “very clear how mad he was at how I had turned out, how disappointing I was.” Perry considered resigning but was warned against it by Cuomo intermediaries, including the attorney, who told her that it would “look terrible” for Cuomo and further damage her standing with him, according to Perry’s notes. “It was, honestly, one of the lowest periods of my life,’’ Perry told me. (Schwartz said that he could not recall the meeting. Calcaterra said, “I recall a meeting did occur with named parties, but I do not recall the specific dialogue that took place.”)

That fall, the Moreland Commission prepared a preliminary report that included calls for more public funding for elections, lower limits on political contributions, and more transparency regarding legislators’ finances. Perry and others said that, as a consequence of Cuomo’s interference, the report included less scrutiny of individuals and entities, and of the Governor’s own reliance on dark money. Perry told me, “No one benefitted from that more than he did. We weren’t allowed to look at that.” Rice added, “The ultimate irony is that he was trying to root out political corruption—just that which doesn’t involve him.”

Rice and the commission’s co-chairs selected two successive independent ethics attorneys to help write the preliminary report, only to be overruled by Calcaterra both times. Instead, a junior staffer on the Governor’s team was selected. Perry recalled that staffer acknowledging his conflicted feelings about the assignment, becoming emotional as he told her that “everything had to be seen through the lens of what was good for the Governor and what was bad for the Governor.” ( Calcaterra told me, “I encouraged the use of an independent report writer early on. . . . However, the Governor’s office wanted to have a role in the selection of the person.”) A draft with more emphasis on the provisions that Cuomo had fought for was leaked to reporters first, a move that Perry and others involved believed to be deliberate. “Our feeling at the time was that it was not an error that that report went out first,” a lawyer who worked with Rice on the commission said. “That was different from that carefully litigated report the commissioners authorized.”

Rice said that Cuomo continued to pressure her during the preparation of the preliminary report and afterward. She likened the heated arguments she had with Cuomo to “physical assaults, even though they were verbal.” The lawyer who worked with Rice remembered “seeing her after she’d talked to the Governor, and you could just feel the stress following that conversation.” When Rice began to consider running for Congress, Cuomo’s attacks escalated. In January, 2014, as Cuomo’s team sought to dismantle the commission, the Governor told Rice that, if she resigned, he would support her candidacy. If she did not, he threatened to remove her and to oppose her future political ambitions. The lawyer said that the Governor’s office had prepared opposition research on Rice, who told Perry that the Governor’s team would “plant bad stories” about her if she defied him.

In early 2014, as their fears that Cuomo would disband the commission grew, Perry, Rice, and the co-chairs discussed how best to salvage their investigative materials. Responses to their subpoenas were still coming in. Calcaterra, several commission staffers said, was monitoring the movements of Perry and other officials and reporting back to Cuomo. “ We were forced to communicate only in person or by encrypted message,” Perry told me. “We took home hard copies of sensitive documents.”

In late January, Rice resigned. A month later, Perry followed. Her final act before departing was to send her cases to various prosecutors. “The only way I knew to preserve our work and to make sure that the criminal cases were actually investigated was to refer them to different prosecutors’ offices on my way out the door,” she told me. “That was the only way I knew to accomplish the mission I thought we had set out to do.” In early April, Cuomo announced a budget deal with legislators that included modest improvements to bribery and corruption statutes—the perceived victory that he had told Perry he sought. On a conference call with reporters, he announced that the commission, having served its goal, would be shuttered.

Bharara told me that the commission’s work aided his case against the Democratic State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, one of two Cuomo allies who were later convicted on federal corruption charges. But Perry’s hopes for more extensive criminal repercussions and legislative reforms had been dashed. “A lot of time and money and good intentions all went down the drain,” she said. “A couple of people were brought to justice, but obviously the system hasn’t changed at all.”

Perry, who now works in private practice, said that she spent years piecing her life back together. “I walked out of there at a real low in every possible way,” she said. “I had no job. I was going through a divorce. Three young kids. Like, I was terrified. . . . If I had stayed in favor, the Governor could have appointed me to something big, and, you know, I think I could have definitely had a completely different trajectory.” In December, 2015, Perry encountered Cuomo at one of his fund-raisers, hosted by a wealthy donor. She recalled Cuomo gesturing at her while turning to her companion and saying, “This one’s a little troublemaker, isn’t she?”

Rice successfully ran for Congress and remains an outspoken Cuomo critic. She told me that she continues to experience fallout. A significant campaign donor, she added, recently told her that Cuomo allies had urged him to stop supporting her. “This is the way he’s kind of taking it out on me,” she said.

After his initial call to the White House about Bharara, Cuomo continued to attack him. In a memorandum issued by his attorneys last week, Cuomo disclosed only one, less legally perilous, call with the White House, in the fall of 2014. He claimed that he called the Administration to lobby against Bharara becoming Attorney General, which had been rumored in the press. One longtime Cuomo aide said that the Governor also called the Donald Trump White House to complain about Bharara. (Cuomo’s office did not answer questions about that call.) In 2017, after Trump fired Bharara while he was continuing to build cases against Cuomo allies, articles assailing Bharara appeared in the New York Daily News. Cuomo advisers said that they believed those stories had likely been planted on the Governor’s behalf.

This year, as the state attorney general’s office scrutinized the harassment allegations against Cuomo, allies of the Governor attacked Joon Kim, Bharara’s former deputy, who was one of the independent counsels retained to author the attorney general’s report. On March 16th, Josh Vlasto, a longtime adviser to Cuomo, wrote in a group text that Cohen had approached him about the effort to sully Kim. “Steve told me this morning they are asking him to spread oppo on Joon Kim. Don’t think we want to be getting down with that crowd,” he wrote. Ken Sunshine, a longtime public-relations executive and Cuomo confidant, later spoke with an editor at the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column, conveying rumors in political circles that Kim was trying to unseat Cuomo so that Bharara could run for governor. Sunshine, who was not employed by Cuomo, learned of the Governor’s desire to spread the rumor from a member of the Governor’s team. Bharara said that he has no plans to run for office. “ He was deliberately planting lies about me and lies about other people,” Bharara said.

The attempt to plant the rumor backfired: Page Six ran an item last month accusing Cuomo’s team of fabricating a “fishy story” about Bharara as a “smokescreen.” Those tactics could lead to more lasting consequences. State legislators considering impeachment proceedings may use the episodes to help establish patterns of retaliatory behavior. “He’s always figuring out ways to discredit the investigation, to discredit the accusers,” Bharara told me. “The real story is Andrew Cuomo cannot tolerate being investigated, by anyone.” your social media marketing partner
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