Charles Lavine back in Albany spotlight with Cuomo impeachment

Charles Lavine back in Albany spotlight with Cuomo impeachment
State Assemblyman Charles Lavine visits Blank Slate Media's offices in 2018. (Photo by Teri West)

Several women had accused one of Albany’s most powerful men of touching them inappropriately, making creepy comments at work, and demanding they wear skirts and high heels on the job.

The man was Vito Lopez, who spent 28 years in the state Assembly and six years as the Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman before allegations that he had sexually harassed his staffers forced him to resign from office in 2013. He died in 2015.

After state ethics regulators outlined Lopez’s disturbing behavior in a damning report, it fell to one of his colleagues — Roslyn area Assemblyman Charles Lavine — to help mete out his punishment as co-chair of the Legislative Ethics Commission. The panel settled on a $330,000 fine, a penalty 33 times larger than the previous record of $10,000, Lavine said.

Eight years later, another Albany scandal has put Lavine up to one of the greatest tests of his nearly two-decade political career: Handling the impeachment investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been accused of sexual harassment and other official misconduct.

While the probe could upend the Capitol and will likely put Lavine in the state’s history books regardless of the outcome, the 73-year-old Democrat and former criminal defense lawyer says it’s just another part of the job.

“I have a job to do, and that’s a very straightforward proposition,” Lavine, who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee, told Blank Slate Media in a May 3 phone interview.

“That job is to conduct a fair and impartial investigation, with heavy emphasis on providing due process to all involved — due process to those who are making the allegations, due process to the individual against whom the allegations are made, and due process to the people of the state of New York,” he added.

State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie tasked the Judiciary Committee with handling the probe in March as a cascade of scandals walloped Cuomo, who was still about two years away from becoming the state’s attorney general when Lavine won his North Shore Assembly seat in a 2004 upset.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo — now facing an impeachment investigation — appears in Westbury in February 2016.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo — now facing an impeachment investigation — appears in Westbury in February 2016. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

Lavine has been largely tight-lipped about the wide-ranging investigation examining Cuomo’s alleged mistreatment of women in his office, his administration’s obfuscation of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, defects with the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, and reports that he had state employees help publish his memoir about the pandemic.

While numerous reports have documented Cuomo’s penchant for bullying lawmakers to get his way, Lavine said he’d always had a “pleasant relationship” with the governor in the past, though he hasn’t communicated directly with Cuomo or his staff about the impeachment probe.

But Lavine declined to reveal how he reacted to the numerous allegations that threaten the third-term Democratic governor’s career.

“That is a great, great question, and I would love to give a response, but I think that that response might tend to interfere with my responsibility,” Lavine said. “My obligation is to be objective — which is not to suggest, my friend, that I was objective when these things developed when the news of these things developed.”

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Lavine said last month that attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell — the law firm to whom the Assembly farmed out the investigation — had received more than 200 tips through a hotline rolled out in early April. The lawyers have also been in touch with attorneys for about 70 people “who may have relevant information” as well as four government agencies, Lavine has said.

But the probe is expected to drag on for months amid widespread calls for Cuomo to resign. Lavine declined to provide details of the probe’s timeline or how far along it is, other than to say the investigators have made “remarkable progress.”

“We know that they have interviewed many people, and I’m very satisfied with the work that they are doing,” Lavine said.

While Cuomo’s critics have reportedly raised questions about Davis Polk’s ties to the governor’s administration, Lavine has stood by the lawyers’ experience and expertise. He said they are crucial to ensuring the probe is conducted independently — something the Lopez episode taught him was necessary.

“Reporting cannot be done in the traditional chain of command,” Lavine said. “People in the Assembly who made claims of sexual harassment and worse against members of the Assembly were always hesitant to have to report to an investigator in the chain of command. It’s just intimidating. So that’s why — that’s why this investigation is conducted by independent, highly experienced outside counsel.”

The impeachment probe is just the latest high-profile chapter of Lavine’s reform-minded career.

Lavine won his Assembly seat under the banner of then-Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi’s “Fix Albany” campaign and ran for the county’s top job in 2017 on an anti-corruption platform.

While he did not urge then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to resign immediately after his 2015 arrest on federal corruption charges, Lavine did condemn Silver for committing “a damning abuse of the public’s trust” after his conviction later that year.

Lavine said the Lopez case, along with others he handled as a defense lawyer, taught him something else: Don’t get distracted.

“If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned as a result of those experiences, above and beyond all else, is simply to focus on the responsibilities that are at hand, and to pay much less attention to much of the ‘noise’ that surrounds some of these controversial matters,” he said. “… Just pay attention to what’s important.”

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