Today, the investigation of questionable conduct in undermining the work of a New York state ethics commission stopped being a tiff between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Times. When the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issues a letter saying that it believes commissioners are being influenced to give false statements, Cuomo’s problem has become a matter of legal peril rather than bad public relations. But don’t expect this story to dominate the news cycle the way New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problems did a few months ago.
Ironically, the blowup in the Cuomo investigation comes just a day after Politico ran a feature asking whether Christie had recovered sufficiently from the Bridgegate mess to return to his former status as a formidable Republican presidential contender. The jury is out on that question but Cuomo’s legal problems and the relative lack of interest in the story by the cable news channels that were all-Bridgegate all-the-time at the start of 2014 raises some interesting questions about media bias.
The first point to be made about federal investigation of the way Cuomo’s office sabotaged the Moreland Commission before the governor disbanded it is that it is a lot more serious than the batty decision to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge last fall.
As I wrote on Monday, Cuomo empowered the commission to investigate the endemic practice of pay-to-play in state government that has made Albany an ethics cesspool for decades. But, as the New York Times reported last week, as soon as it started poking around into businesses that were linked to the governor, the word went out from the governor’s office to cease and desist. Cuomo’s appointees followed orders, though apparently some members of the commission protested since they had foolishly thought the governor was serious when he told them to ferret out corruption. Seeing that the commission was going to be a problem and not the sort of harmless stunt that would make a show of his concern for probity, he quickly disbanded it.
Not unreasonably, this has prompted the Justice Department to look into the matter. At the very least, some people on Cuomo’s staff may be in peril of obstruction of justice charges that will taint the governor’s office. But given his own reputation as a political bully with a predilection for issuing threats to political opponents and allies alike, it is not unreasonable to suspect the chief executive may also be involved in efforts to quiet witnesses or perhaps even involvement in the original effort to stop the investigation of a firm that had helped him get elected. That all has yet to be determined, but the willingness of the Times to buy into this scandal with the sort of space and prominent placement and the decision of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District—who is, by the way, a Democrat and an Obama appointee—to double down in the charges with the latest letter illustrates the seriousness of this problem.
In other words, Cuomo is in big trouble and not just media-firestorm trouble but in the kind of legal problem that ends political careers in disgrace.
But, as consumers of our 24/7 news cycle may have noticed, despite the involvement of the country’s liberal flagship newspaper, this Ethics Comissiongate (suggestions for a better scandal “gate” moniker will be welcomed) is still flying below the radar on the same stations that obsessed over Bridgegate.
To state this fact is not to assume Cuomo’s guilt or to deny the seriousness of Bridgegate. The bridge scandal was an example of what happens when small-minded officials and staffers use the great power that has been put in their hands to maliciously inconvenience ordinary citizens in order to pursue petty feuds against other political figures. Anyone involved in plotting this piece of lunacy deserves all the opprobrium that can be rained down on his or her worthless heads.
It is also true that Bridgegate resonated with the public because it illustrated another side of Christie’s well-known public behavior. His penchant for bluntly scourging his critics and punishing his foes was seen as amusing and made him a YouTube star when it was limited to foils like union officials and obnoxious liberals. But even if the genesis of the traffic jam cannot be directly linked to Christie, it is fair to note that those staffers who were involved seemed to be acting in a manner that was consistent with the governor’s instincts. That is something that is always going to be held against Christie and, as Politico noted, his ongoing arrogant behavior toward friends and foes alike merely adds fuel to the fire. This far out from the 2016 contest, it is impossible to know whether Christie still has a chance. But Bridgegate will remain a problem for him if only because it is the sort of scandal that is easily understood (everybody hates traffic jams and has cursed those who create them) and is prime fodder for TV comics.
Cuomo’s legal peril is not quite as comedic or visceral in nature. But it is far more serious. The willingness of the governor to allegedly quash a subpoena on a firm that was a campaign vendor is a classic example of corruption. The governor’s effort to spin this, perhaps aided by an effort to coach witnesses to echo his denials, is, at best, suspicious, and very likely criminal in nature. That means Cuomo can forget about running for president someday and should instead concentrate on staying out of federal prison.
But instead of panels endlessly examining the evidence and pondering the political implications, most of the media yawns. At its peak, Bridgegate got more coverage than other more serious scandals such as the IRS’s discriminatory treatment of conservative groups, government spying, Benghazi, or even wrongdoing at the VA. So it is hardly surprising that Cuomo’s woes aren’t generating the same wall-to-wall attention. Could the reason for that be that Christie was a Republican and these other scandals involve Democrats and the Obama administration? Anyone who can’t connect those dots hasn’t been paying attention to the way the media works.