Andrew Cuomo & Chris Christie Both Have Federal Corruption Probes In Run-Up To 2016

For the second time in less than a year, a high-profile east coast governor with eyes on 2016 is being investigated by the federal government on corruption charges. First, it was Chris Christie in New Jersey with Bridgegate; now, it’s New York Governor Andrew Cuomo with the Moreland Commission. Bridgegate has already badly damaged Christie’s presidential aspirations, and this scandal could derail Cuomo’s as well.

Christie, who governs a legendarily corrupt state, was accused of shutting down a bridge lane and creating a traffic jam in order to stick it to a mayor he didn’t like. Cuomo, who runs a state that leads the nation in federal public corruption convictions, is being informally scrutinized, and may soon be officially investigated, by the U.S. Attorney for witness tampering and obstruction of justice. He’s essentially being accused of strong-arming members of a state investigative panel that was originally formed — wait for it — to stamp out corruption in the state.

It dates back to spring of 2013, when no less than six New York lawmakers were arrested — not investigated, but physically arrested — on suspicion of bribing party officials for ballot access. In response to the subsequent uproar, Cuomo formed a special type of New York investigative body called a Moreland Commission to root out corruption amongst state legislators. However, as was later reported, the governor’s office routinely interfered with investigations that came too close to the governor, and Cuomo shut down the commission entirely after nine months.

That would be a sufficient scandal, but there’s more. The U.S. Attorney in New York, Preet Bharara, launched an investigation. A number of the commission’s members rose to Cuomo’s defense, and there’s now suspicion that the governor may have illegally coerced the commission’s members to wage those defenses. Put differently, Cuomo is being accused of forcing people to do something, then forcing them to say that he never forced them to do it.

While it’s nowhere near as explosive, the scandal has whiffs of Watergate. In addition to the fact that Cuomo looks vaguely like Richard Nixon, it involves a cover-up that could ultimately prove more damaging than the initial transgression. In remarks quite reminiscent of Nixon’s famous proclamation that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” Cuomo brashly defended his involvement in the commission work:

It’s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow...it’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.

But second allegation would amount to tampering with a federal investigation, since Bharara was already looking into commission’s activities. In preparation for what could be a very lengthy legal battle, Cuomo has hired criminal defense attorney Elkan Abramowitz to represent him.

The extent to which this damages Cuomo is unclear. He’ll most definitely cruise through his reelection campaign, as Christie did last year, without any difficulty, since New York is a heavily Democratic state and federal investigations can take a while. But if Brarara decides to launch a formal probe into Cuomo’s dealings, and if that probe ultimately implicates Cuomo in wrongdoing, it will arrive right when the Democratic presidential primary is heating up. It’s widely believed that Cuomo won’t run for president if Hillary Clinton does, but if Clinton opts out, Cuomo would immediately become one of the most formidable alternatives.

While nobody is counting Christie out just yet, Bridgegate damaged him both in the public eye and in the eyes of Republican elders and donors who may otherwise have thrown early support behind his nascant bid. It’s too soon to say whether Cuomo will suffer a similar fate; that will be determined largely by the results of the investigation. But federal prosecutors tend to take their time. Even if Cuomo is exonerated, it’ll take a long time for that verdict to be issued. This will be hanging over his head for a while.