Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate for governor, has been happy to join a U.S. attorney in criticizing incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo over his dismantling of an anticorruption panel. But Astorino's own battle with the U.S. government is heating up, with the same prosecutor lined up against him.
A judge has ordered Astorino, over his objections, to submit to seven hours of depositions by a federal monitor who says Astorino, the Westchester County executive, has been lying to the public about a housing desegregation settlement.
"The office of the county executive and some of those reporting to him have for years publicly disparaged the settlement, cast doubt on the existence of certain of its provisions, spread misinformation about its objectives and undermined public confidence in its implementation," monitor James E. Johnson told the judge.
In papers supporting the motion, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara agreed that Astorino had made "numerous false and misleading statements" about the case.
In the 2009 settlement, Westchester agreed to build 750 affordable-housing units in mostly white areas and market them to nonwhites. Those units are being built and 173 are occupied.
The monitor cited Astorino's contentions that the government's real target for affordable housing units is more than 10,000, not the 750 mentioned in the settlement. Astorino has repeatedly said that the Westchester case could lead to a federal takeover of local zoning.
The county's lawyer said Astorino's statements are true and at any rate are protected by the First Amendment. He accused Johnson of "a direct attempt to silence debate."
But federal Judge Denise Cote ruled last month that Astorino, his principal spokesman and the county's planning commissioner and deputy commissioner must sit for depositions — Astorino for up to seven hours, the others for up to three hours. No dates have been set.
In the spring, Cuomo abruptly dismantled the Moreland Commission, an anticorruption panel he created last year. Bharara took over the commission's work and threatened to investigate Cuomo's office.
Astorino said Cuomo was making sure the commission's investigations "stayed away from him, his donors, his political pals." He compared the governor to a mafia boss and said, "This is Andrew Cuomo's Watergate."
An Astorino campaign spokesman said there was no hypocrisy in Astorino criticizing Cuomo while the government is looking into his own behavior.
"These are totally different cases," said Bill O'Reilly. "Andrew Cuomo is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice; Rob Astorino is being deposed for giving his First-Amendment-protected opinion about federal overreach. Very different situations."
The Moreland Commission flap has had little immediate effect on Cuomo's big lead in the polls. In public, Cuomo has been largely dismissive of Astorino's candidacy and avoids even saying Astorino's name. When Astorino called for a state investigation, Cuomo said, "That's entertaining."
Cuomo hasn't publicly mentioned the latest development in Astorino's housing fight. A television ad that aired in the spring from the state Democratic Committee said Astorino "has repeatedly violated federal antidiscrimination laws for years."
In the settlement, Westchester also agreed to analyze local zoning to identify barriers to fair housing, though it concluded that there are no discriminatory zoning laws. The Justice Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development called that analysis unacceptable and HUD is withholding millions of dollars in grants as a result.
The Justice Department has threatened Astorino with contempt proceedings in the past, and the judge hinted in her ruling there may be some in the future. But Astorino's spokesman, Ned McCormack, said the county executive has promised to comply with the settlement. Astorino is entitled, however, to go through "whatever procedures exist" when he disagrees with how it's carried out, McCormack said.