Pressure mounts for NY. Gov. Paterson to end campaign; Cabinet member resigns amid turmoil

By Michael Gormley, AP
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pressure rises for NY’s Paterson to end campaign

ALBANY, N.Y — Calls for Gov. David Paterson to abandon his election bid mounted Thursday as the state attorney general announced he would investigate whether the administration or state police committed a crime in talking to a woman who had filed a domestic violence report against a top aide to the governor.

Paterson’s top criminal justice Cabinet member resigned Thursday over the burgeoning scandal, saying conduct by the state police was “distressing” for an administration that has devoted itself to reducing domestic violence.

Elected officials and other candidates for office clamored for Paterson to end his campaign — formally launched just five days ago — as the turmoil mushroomed around longtime adviser David Johnson. A police report detailed in The New York Times discusses a confrontation between Johnson and a woman over her Halloween costume.

The New York Times reported Wednesday on court papers showing a phone call between state police and the woman. Paterson’s office acknowledges he talked to the woman but says she placed the call, and a spokesman for the governor denied anyone tried to keep the woman from pursuing a domestic violence case.

The state police said in a news release that they won’t comment on any aspect of the case during the investigation by the office of Andrew Cuomo, the popular attorney general whom many would like to see run as the Democratic candidate for governor instead of Paterson.

The Paterson administration asked Cuomo’s office to investigate the matter, and the attorney general’s office said it would look into whether crimes or other wrongdoing were committed. The state police said Cuomo asked the agency not to open its own internal probe.

Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor, said Cuomo should tell New Yorkers if any of his staff gave the Times any information for the Johnson story.

“Today, you ordered the state police to halt any internal investigation into its role surrounding their handling of this matter for fear that they would protect their own interests over the truth,” Lazio said in a written statement. “If you do not disavow any connection to this story the same conflict of interest would be present and any findings of your investigation would be immediately called into question.”

Criminal Justice Services Commissioner Denise O’Donnell abruptly quit Thursday afternoon, saying state police Superintendent Harry Corbitt had assured her his agency was not involved in the confrontation involving Johnson.

Corbitt denies misleading O’Donnell. He said that he told her state police weren’t involved in the investigation, not that they hadn’t contacted the woman.

Paterson’s office had no immediate comment about O’Donnell’s resignation or on increasing pressure for him to call off his candidacy. Paterson has been resisting calls from fellow Democrats not to seek a full term, and some saw O’Donnell’s departure as a sign the administration was tottering.

“That’s a very serious blow,” state Sen. Bill Perkins, a Democrat who represents Paterson’s old state Senate district in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood, said of O’Donnell’s departure. “She has been loyal, so the Cabinet, so to so speak, is falling apart.”

Paterson faces a big test before his scheduled campaign announcement in Harlem, his home district, on Sunday. Black Democratic leaders, key supporters for any political campaign, are trying to schedule a Saturday meeting with Paterson that could force him to contend with whether to continue his underfunded shot at a full term, according to a Democratic adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Perkins is among top Democrats who want the governor to end his candidacy for a full term this fall. Paterson was lieutenant governor when Eliot Spitzer’s resignation in a prostitution scandal elevated him in March 2008.

“What we are learning is unacceptable, and the viability of his candidacy is obviously crippling,” Perkins told The Associated Press, calling the reports “very, very serious allegations.”

“To the extent that he can govern, he can best govern without the campaign and by focusing on the needs of the community,” he said.

Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Democrat and longtime congressional member from Long Island, said it’s time for friends to be straight with Paterson.

“I think it’s become apparent that he should not seek election and should announce it soon,” Israel said. “And sometimes friends have to speak unpleasant truths.”

Rep. Nita Lowey, a Westchester Democrat, said that if “these very serious allegations” are true, “the governor should no longer be in office.”

“Aside from the allegations, the political reality is the governor cannot be an effective candidate or official for New York,” she said.

Republican Chris Cox, running for Congress on Long Island, also called for Paterson to step aside.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, considered the most powerful official in Albany, said he wants an investigation of the role of the governor and state police in the Johnson matter.

“That investigation must address at whose direction and with whose knowledge members of the governor’s security detail were acting when they contacted the victim,” Silver said.

O’Donnell said in a written statement that it doesn’t matter to her what was said in the contact with the woman.

“The fact that the governor and members of the state police have acknowledged direct contact with a woman who had filed for an order of protection against a senior member of the governor’s staff is a very serious matter,” she said. “These actions are unacceptable regardless of their intent.”

The behavior is “particularly distressing” for an administration that prides itself in combatting domestic violence, she said Thursday, adding that she wrote to Paterson that she couldn’t “in good conscience” remain in his administration.

Johnson, 37, has worked for Paterson for more than a decade, beginning when Paterson was a state senator. Johnson began as an intern as part of Paterson’s effort to help youths with arrest records stemming from the crack epidemic in Harlem at the time.

The turmoil stems from a Halloween 2009 argument between the aide, David Johnson, and a woman, according to a police report. The woman told police Johnson was angry about her costume, choked her, tried to rip the clothing from her body, and pushed her up into a mirror.

New York City Police returned to the home on Nov. 4 on a follow-up visit as part of their domestic violence prevention program. No other incidents were reported. She had no visible injuries and was not taken to a hospital. On Nov. 9, police served David Johnson with an order of protection.

Two people familiar with the investigation identified the woman as Sherruna Booker, 40, with a home address in the Bronx. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. No telephone number was listed for her.

Her lawyer told The Associated Press in an e-mail that he would have a statement soon but did not elaborate. He declined repeated attempts to reach him by telephone and visits to his office and home.

This week, Paterson suspended Johnson without pay.

After hearing of the Halloween confrontation, O’Donnell said, she met with Corbitt.

O’Donnell has overseen all homeland security and criminal justice agencies including criminal justice, the Office of Homeland Security, the Division of State Police, the Department of Corrections, the Division of Parole and the State Emergency Management Office, among others.

Paid $165,000 a year, she worked on a national investigation that developed crucial evidence against Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of orchestrating the deadly 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York and Michael Virtanen and Michael Hill in Albany contributed to this report.

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