ALBANY, N.Y (AP) — Calls for Gov. David Paterson to abandon his election bid crescendoed 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.
Elected officials and other candidates for office clamored for Paterson to end his campaign — 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.
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.
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 is 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.”
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.
“I obviously am torn in terms of having to take the position I am taking,” Perkins said. “I have known him for over 20 years.”
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.”
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, and whether or not any other government officials participated in or had knowledge of any effort to dissuade her from pressing charges or pursuing an order of protection,” Silver said.
O’Donnell said in a written statement that it doesn’t matter to her what was said in the contacts 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.
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 and tried to rip the clothing from her body.
After hearing of the Halloween confrontation, she said she met with Corbitt.
“Superintendent Corbitt told me the staff member had an argument with his girlfriend, that a domestic incident report had been filed, but that there was no arrest and that the matter was being handled as a local police matter by the New York Police Department,” O’Donnell wrote. “I was assured by Superintendent Corbitt that the State Police were not involved. It was only last night when I learned from press reports the contrary details, including the involvement of the state police.”
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.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed her U.S. attorney in Buffalo, making her the first woman to hold the position of top federal prosecutor in upstate New York.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York and Michael Virtanen and Michael Hill in Albany contributed to this report.