Publisher’s Corner: Let’s hope new AG will keep her eye on New York

Letitia James. Photo courtesy of the Office of Public Advocate for the City of New York

I have been meaning to write a column extolling the work of Barbara Underwood, who has been the Attorney General for several months now. She has proven herself to be one of the best occupants of that office ever. Her work following up on the misdeeds of the Trump Foundation has been extraordinary.

Unfortunately, her time has been limited and she will be replaced by the incoming AG, Letitia James. James promises to work assiduously, presumably in the same fashion as Underwood. We’ll just have to see about that. As a result of some criticism because Andrew Cuomo backed her, James has been somewhat defensive, claiming that she will be fiercely independent and her own person. We can only hope so and will keep our eyes open as to whether that protestation ends up ringing true.

In the meantime, like Andrew Cuomo, James seems to be signaling that her fire will be concentrated on Donald Trump. That’s good. But since New York politics has proven to be quite a cesspool of corruption, and she will be the cop on the beat when it comes to going on sleaze patrol, we can only hope that she keeps her eye on New York where, after all, she will be the chief attorney, right? Don’t hold your breath.

A recent news item caught many of our eyes. We heard that New York will drop its state charges against Alain Kaloyeros who was recently convicted on federal corruption charges. Some folks are concerned about that move for a number of reasons. The first is that Kaloyeros is appealing the federal conviction charges and may beat the rap. If he does, why would New York have dropped its charges? Doesn’t make any sense. That’s why we have something in this country called “dual federalism.” Law enforcement in the state is different from that in the federal government. Different crimes, different laws. After all, if Kaloyeros broke state law, why wouldn’t the state want to pursue its own charges?

While I have great regard for Attorney General Underwood, this move does seem pretty premature. In fact, I am sure that it has occurred to all watchers of anti-corruption practices in New York that it seems to fall to the Feds to police the politicians. That’s why so many folks have been suspicious of the incoming Tish James. While many of you have high regard for the work of Governor Cuomo on some major policy issues, there are still some names like Joe Percoco, Todd Howe and the aforementioned Kaloyeros. These were not federal officials, they were players smack in the center of New York politics.

You will remember that Kaloyeros was convicted in July on wire fraud and bid rigging in matters around awarding of contracts as part of the Buffalo Billions program, a signature effort of the Cuomo administration. Clearly all of this was well known to New Yorkers who overwhelmingly voted for Cuomo in the last election. Although these corrupt players were close to Cuomo, he said that these crooks let him down and he was personally distressed. We can take the governor at his word. He will not be the first person who was let down by top aides but it still reminds us that the office of the Attorney General has to be fiercely independent from the major players in government and that, of course, includes Cuomo.

We have a state Constitution that divides up government so that the different officers like the Attorney General and the Comptroller can watch each other. That’s one of the reasons why the governor and the Legislature had no business cutting the pre-audit function of the State Comptroller. Many people believe that Percoco and Howe would have been stopped in their tracks had Tom DiNapoli been allowed to do his job. I get the governor’s role in this, but the Legislature? That was disgraceful.