ALBANY, N.Y. — To impeach or not to impeach?
After Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week he would step down following accusations that he had sexually harassed nearly a dozen women, New York lawmakers have been eager to close one of the most turbulent chapters in Albany’s scandal-marked history.
But they are still grappling over whether Cuomo’s resignation also should effectively end the impeachment investigation he was facing.
The Assembly had been moving quickly toward ousting Cuomo from office, spurred by a devastating report from the state attorney general, released Aug. 3, that concluded the governor had engaged in a pattern of unwanted touching and suggestive remarks. If Cuomo were impeached and convicted in a trial in the state Senate, lawmakers could decide to bar him from holding state elected office, an outcome that some in the Legislature support.
“It’s about accountability,” said Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat from lower Manhattan. “It’s really important that we don’t allow him to continue his abuse elsewhere. We have to make sure that he can’t hold office again.”
The leader of the state Assembly, Carl E. Heastie, has not publicly said how he intends to proceed, but many high-ranking Democrats appear intent on avoiding an impeachment trial that could devolve into a long and costly distraction for the party.
The 21-member Assembly Judiciary Committee, which is spearheading the effort, is scheduled to convene Monday to discuss next steps. But its chair, Charles Lavine, D-Long Island, said earlier this week that impeachment would be “moot” if Cuomo stepped down.
Lawmakers appear to have a few options: They could drop their wide-ranging impeachment investigation into Cuomo; they could conclude the investigation and issue its findings in a report, but not recommend articles of impeachment; or they could move to impeach.
“I personally think to proceed with an expensive trial in the Senate that would be millions of dollars and time-consuming would not be in the best interests of the people of the state of New York,” said Assemblyman David I. Weprin, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Weprin noted that other authorities were still investigating Cuomo, including at least five local prosecutors who opened criminal investigations into allegations of groping, and federal prosecutors, who have been examining how Cuomo handled nursing home deaths during the pandemic.
Latrice Walker, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, said she also opposed impeachment, saying that for someone who had been hailed as “America’s governor” at the height of the pandemic, resignation was punishment enough.
Others, such as Catalina Cruz, D-Queens, and a member of the committee, said they were still grappling with the issue.
“I think there are very valid reasons to continue and very valid reasons not to. I’m taking the weekend to think through it,” Cruz said.
Even if there is enough political will to impeach, there is no precedent in New York for impeaching a governor after he leaves office. Lawmakers would have to navigate a process riddled with open-ended and complicated constitutional questions.
“Until two days ago, there was no debate because I don’t think this had ever come up,” said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University and an expert on state constitutional law. “There is no doubt that they can impeach while he is in office. If he ceases to be in office, can he be impeached? I just don’t know. The Constitution doesn’t address it.”
Legislators could rush to impeach Cuomo before he steps down in 12 days, but a Senate trial would still happen after he leaves. And even then, it is unclear if Cuomo could legally be barred from running for office again, some scholars said, since that stipulation appears to be tied to his being impeached while in office.
“Lawmakers could make the argument that since they began the proceedings, then they’re entitled to in fact complete the impeachment process,” said Leonard M. Cutler, a professor of political science at Siena College. “Undoubtedly, it would wind up in the courts.”
Although impeaching a governor is incredibly rare — about a dozen governors in U.S. history have ever been impeached — impeaching a former governor is almost unheard of. James E. Ferguson of Texas was impeached and tried in 1917 while he was governor but resigned right before he was convicted. He was nonetheless barred from holding office again.
The only New York governor to be impeached was William Sulzer in 1913, who was convicted but not barred from running again. He was able to stage a political comeback of sorts: He was elected to the state Assembly a few weeks after his conviction.
The debate unfolding in Albany has some parallels with the second impeachment of President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The House rushed to impeach Trump on Jan. 13, about a week before his term ended, with the Senate’s acquitting him Feb. 13, after he left office. The process kicked off a bitter debate among constitutional scholars on whether a former president could be impeached and tried.
Republicans, who are in the minority in the New York state Legislature, appear to be pushing for impeachment, perhaps unsurprisingly. The party is likely to wield Cuomo’s scandals as a cudgel against Democrats in upcoming elections.
“There are some serious allegations that have been lodged, and there’s been an ongoing investigation that has cost taxpayers a substantial amount of money,” said Assemblyman Keith Brown, R-Suffolk County, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. “We believe that New Yorkers have a right to know what the outcome of that investigation is in terms of the facts of what happened.”
The support among Republicans has given Democrats some pause. Impeachment, some Democrats also believe, could amount to an unwelcome distraction for Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul during her first few months in office after she is sworn in as governor Aug. 24. (Hochul said Thursday that she planned to run for reelection next year.)
“Anyone who is arguing for the impeachment process to continue is being disingenuous,” said Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and a longtime ally of Cuomo. “They are looking to be vengeful of a governor who they have accused of being vengeful himself. They are doing it to promote themselves, to keep the cameras on, also to hurt Democrats in the elections. They don’t want to see this fire burn out.”
The Assembly inquiry is looking not only at sexual harassment claims but also at how the Cuomo administration sought to play down the nursing home death toll during the pandemic and whether the governor used state resources, including staff, to write a pandemic memoir that earned him $5.1 million.
During his resignation announcement, Cuomo appeared to leave the door open for a return to politics, however remote that scenario may be. In listing his reasons to step down, he also sent lawmakers a not-so-subtle message on what he saw as the perils of moving against him.
“This situation by its current trajectory will generate months of political and legal controversy,” he said. “That is what is going to happen. That is how the political wind is blowing. It will consume government. It will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It will brutalize people.”