NEW YORK NOW – In a speech that sounded like the prelude to a campaign, Attorney General Letitia James laid out her plan for overhauling and streamlining state government in New York during an event with business leaders in New York City Wednesday.
But which office the speech was geared toward is unclear; James is reportedly considering a run for governor next year, pitting her against current Gov. Kathy Hochul.
When asked directly at the end of the event if she was running for governor next year, James jokingly interrupted the questioner, thanked the audience, and took her exit.
“It’s a packed room, it really is,” James said to the crowd’s laughter. “I am focusing on my work, putting my head down, serving you all as attorney general, and I must leave you now to pursue that work.”
In the speech preceding that question, James railed on former Gov. Andrew Cuomo for continuing to criticize a report released by her office last month that found several claims of sexual harassment made against him to be credible, and ultimately led to his resignation.
Until Wednesday, James had been relatively silent in response to Cuomo’s claims. He’s framed it as a political hit job designed to drive him out of office so James can run for the state’s top job next year.
But James, also a Democrat, pushed back on that criticism Wednesday, repeating that the investigation was conducted by a pair of attorneys from outside state government to distance herself from the probe, and any perceived conflicts of interest.
Among them were Joon Kim, a former federal prosecutor who, at one time, was investigating Cuomo for potential misconduct, and also worked on the prosecution of one of the former governor’s closest aides over charges of public corruption.
James said Wednesday that she had no influence over the results of the investigation because of the firewall between her office and the investigators, and that the resulting report is a reflection of that decision.
“Mr. Cuomo has a lot to say on these matters, but he has never taken responsibility for his own conduct,” James said. “He has never held himself accountable for how his behavior affected our state government.”
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, responded to James’ comments in a statement Wednesday, saying her potential political aspirations poisoned the previous publication.
“It should raise serious red flags that the AG and her staff duck every time specific questions about omissions and inaccuracies in the AG’s report are raised,” Azzopardi said. “The public deserves specific answers from the AG as to the credibility of her report – especially while she mulls a run for Governor.”
But the majority of James’ remarks Wednesday focused on how to move the state forward, both in terms of government, and business.
She began by telling the audience she thought the state should take a look at its current structure of commissions and authorities that regulate and oversee certain sectors of the economy. They’re important, she said, but could use a revamp.
“It’s time to make sure that they are working efficiently and in the best interest of the public,” James said.
And at a time when public ethics in state government is under the spotlight, James also called for New York’s public ethics agency to be disbanded and replaced with an entity with more investigatory and enforcement power.
James said a new ethics agency should be comprised of individuals who aren’t appointed by elected officials, who the body would be tasked with investigating. That way, she said, it would be less likely for that agency to succumb to political influence.
She also called on the state Legislature to broaden the power of her current office in terms of its investigatory authority.
In many cases, the attorney general’s office needs a referral from an appropriate agency to start an investigation, like the governor’s office or a state agency. That’s what happened with Cuomo; the sexual harassment report was the result of a referral to James from his office.
James said that shouldn’t happen, and called on lawmakers to give her office the power to begin investigations without a referral.
“The Legislature should give my office and all future attorneys general permanent power to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute public corruption and independent authority to conduct civil investigations to issue and to enforce administrative subpoenas and provide public reports,” James said.
She went on to call for more robust oversight over the financial disclosures required of public officials, saying the state’s current system of auditing only a sample of those documents each year could allow some individuals to slip through.
James ended on a high note, recalling her accomplishments in office, and calling on the audience to consider her vision as she remains in office, and potentially runs for another one.
“We must set our sights on the outer edges of what is possible. We are New York. And we will strive towards greatness. Because it’s who we are,” James said. “I am here to serve. And I hope that all of you will join me.”