EDITORIAL: Ensure independent investigations

Gov. Andrew Cuomo - Governor's Office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo - Governor's Office

Imagine you’re accused of wrong-doing.

Wouldn’t you like the option of deciding who was going to investigate and judge you? And while they’re investigating, wouldn’t you like to be entitled to regular updates on the investigation so you can counter negative claims and influence witnesses?

Sure you would. Who wouldn’t want the chance to put their thumb on the scale?

But is that the kind of special influence you’d want a public official to have?

Well, it’s the kind of power that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has. And lawmakers need to take it away from him.

Over the weekend, the governor faced new, disturbing allegations of sexual harassment from a second state employee, prompting calls from both Republicans and Democrats for the governor’s impeachment, removal or resignation.

The allegations deserve a full and independent investigation. But under existing state law, the governor has influence over who conducts the investigation into his conduct and he has regular access to the information about the ongoing investigation.

Over the weekend, Cuomo tried to exercise that power first by appointing his own investigator, then appointing the attorney general and his hand-picked state Appeals Court chief justice to pick an investigator, before finally conceding to the attorney general doing her own investigation.

Yet in order for the state attorney general’s office to launch an investigation, it first needs a referral from the governor.

Imagine: The governor must grant permission for the AG to investigate him.

In addition, the governor is entitled to weekly status updates, and he has the power to approve the funds needed to finance the investigation.

Sounds like a sweet deal for the governor, and a raw deal for the alleged victims and the citizens. That needs to change.

Under new legislation (S5260) proposed by state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a former county and federal prosecutor, the attorney general would be entitled to proceed with an investigation “at their discretion concerning the public’s interest without interference from other elected officials.”

Also, because the attorney general has limited jurisdiction to prosecute criminal cases without a referral from the head of a state agency, the office’s ability to investigate government corruption is limited. This bill would lift that requirement and give the state attorney general the same broad powers afforded to county prosecutors.

The public must be confident in the legal process. But laws that give governors influence over investigations into their own conduct undermine that confidence.

While it appears the attorney general will get the independent investigation she sought for the latest allegations against Cuomo, there’s no guarantee a future governor will grant such permission.

If a thumb is going to be on any scale, it should on the scale of justice.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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