The investigation that could bring down Gov. David Paterson is being led by the man widely considered the favorite to replace him. That puts New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a delicate position: He must look like he is running a vigorous probe without appearing to be picking over the carcass of a political foe who just quit his campaign amid scandal.
With the widespread anticipation that Cuomo will run for governor, he should have considered the appearance of misconduct when he accepted the investigation, said Pery Krinsky, a New York City-based attorney who lectures on legal ethics.
"At that moment, there was a clear bright yellow line that says it would be advantageous to the attorney general if his investigation concludes that Governor Paterson engaged in some form of misconduct," Krinsky said. "There's no question, no doubt, that that would be an advantageous result for the attorney general."
Paterson asked Cuomo to probe whether the governor, his staff and his state police security detail illegally contacted a woman who had accused one of Paterson's most trusted aides in a domestic violence incident.
"I don't think you can fault the attorney general when they're asked to come into a matter to do it," said David Grandeau, former executive director of the now-defunct state lobbying commission. "That's what they're there for."
The investigation gives Cuomo a golden opportunity to meet his campaign promise of cleaning up Albany. But it could be tricky because his findings will have to be unimpeachable.
That's a rare hurdle for Cuomo, who has been untouchable as he refused to say whether he will run for governor while collecting gubernatorial-sized campaign contributions.
Paterson, who abandoned his campaign for a full term a week ago, said Friday that he expects to clear his name in the scandal over the aide as well as one over World Series tickets, while complaining that news reports with "unsourced information, rumors and innuendo" were turning the public against him.
"I don't have any plans to resign," he said outside his Manhattan office.
In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted Wednesday and Thursday, 46 percent of New Yorkers said Paterson should finish his term, down from 61 percent earlier in the week. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.
In any investigation, the attorney general can recuse himself and appoint a special prosecutor with the governor's approval when they believe there is a conflict of interest. Spokesmen for Paterson and Cuomo refused to comment on whether there's a conflict in this investigation. Paterson said this week that he has full confidence in Cuomo's ability to investigate the case.
"Now that Paterson is out of the race, there is less of a question," Krinsky said. "But overarching concerns regarding the appearance of impropriety, conflicts and bias still warrant the same outcome — which is appoint a special prosecutor."
New Yorkers think that's the way it should have been done all along. A Quinnipiac University poll this week showed that 61 percent of voters prefer an investigation by an independent prosecutor.
Some would argue that Paterson could have spared Cuomo the conundrum. Paterson could have waited for the Commission on Public Integrity to investigate the domestic violence scandal.
Or, if the matter rose to a criminal level, the Bronx District Attorney's office likely would have handled it, Grandeau said.
"I don't understand why the governor needed to invite an investigator to the party," Grandeau said.
Lawyers must ensure they have "clean hands" and lead by example when they are investigating potentially unethical conduct, Krinksy said.
"If we're going to allow our own actions to come in to question from an ethical standpoint, how can the public have any confidence in what we're doing?"
Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and Megan Scott in New York contributed to this report.
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