For the first time since he took office as governor, Andrew M. Cuomo struggles and scrambles to play serious defense. The same micromanaging style applied to all things affecting his image that may have served him well in the past looks like a political liability in this murky drama over the anti-corruption panel he opened and later shut.
Trying to combat the idea that he interfered with the commission, Cuomo's message descended into contradiction. At one point, he said rather incredibly it was even free to investigate himself -- but his office months later said otherwise. In recent days he had ex-commission members vouching for its purported independence.
So in the second half of the final year of his first elected term, Cuomo faces a powerful force with subpoena power whom he lacks the clout to push into submission: U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. A former aide to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, Bharara this week blasted away at the Democratic governor's latest damage-control strategy. Bharara wrote former Moreland personnel against "attempts to influence or tamper with a witness's recollection of events relevant to our investigation" which could constitute obstruction of justice or other violations.
Just what if any controversial facts lie beneath this lawyerly smoke and posturing remains tantalizingly unclear. So do Bharara's plans -- which might not be fully known for some time.
From the start of this Moreland panel last year, it seemed clear that Cuomo created it to be a cudgel against the Legislature's resistance to certain reform measures he wished to notch on his belt.
But some Moreland lawyers -- who don't owe their careers to Cuomo & Co. -- moved to do such things as subpoena the Real Estate Board of New York. The board helped fund expensive ads promoting Cuomo's fiscal agenda via the Committee to Save New York. Cuomo has of course collected campaign funds from real estate. And he isn't averse to this industry's priorities; which of his predecessors were?
If the real estate scene, or any other, produces facts worth exploring for legal violations, they fall into Bharara's domain. His office has the former commission's files. If this shapes up as a Preet v. Andrew contest, it looks like Preet's move.
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Bharara's swearing-in. Since then he's brought criminal cases against state lawmakers and sermonized on New York's corruption problems. Some believe that Cuomo's closing of the commission late last year enraged Bharara, who'd been persuaded to lend his credibility to it.
Both men are fluent in the lordly language of the prosecutor, given Cuomo's past term as state attorney general. But we have never before seen Cuomo get terms like "obstruction" and "tampering" flung his way from a credible source, fairly or not.
Dan Janison is a Newsday columnist.