NEW YORK (AP) — Legal experts say the next few days and weeks could be the most dangerous yet for the embattled administration of Gov. David Paterson.
There has been a whirlwind of speculation this month that either Paterson, his staff or state police officials could face charges of witness tampering or obstructing justice over their handling of a domestic violence case involving one of the governor’s top aides.
But ultimately, the greater legal hazard to Paterson and members of his team may be the temptation to be less than truthful with investigators from the state attorney general’s office now inquiring about the matter.
“That is the number one concern,” said former Albany County prosecutor Paul DerOhannesian.
“The attorney general is interviewing people under oath,” he said. If subjects of the inquiry lie about anything, even minor details, they could face a perjury charge, he said.
The veteran Bronx defense attorney, Murray Richman, said if he were advising the governor in the case, he would tell him to invoke the Fifth Amendment and not answer any questions.
“They are going to get someone in a lie, and it’s going to come back and bite someone,” he predicted Friday.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation a week ago into the Paterson administration’s dealings with a woman who had accused his top aide of assaulting her in their home on Oct. 31.
Sherr-una Booker said Paterson staffer David Johnson choked her, ripped off her Halloween costume and pushed her into a mirror. No arrest was made, but Booker sought a court order requiring Johnson to stay away. She told court officials that in the days after the altercation, “the state troopers kept calling and harassing me to drop the charges.”
Paterson himself ultimately spoke with Booker. A day after that call, she didn’t show up for a scheduled court appearance and the protective order she had sought was vacated.
Legal experts said the attorney general’s office is likely investigating whether Paterson or his aides directed the state police to pressure Booker to drop the case.
Several high ranking state police officials have already been questioned. Some have been asked to come back for second interviews.
Separately, the state’s Public Integrity Commission has accused Paterson of violating the law by soliciting free tickets to the 2009 World Series and then lying to investigators about his intention to pay for them.
The case was referred to the Albany County prosecutor’s office and the attorney general for possible criminal investigation.
Paterson has declined to answer questions about his conduct, but has insisted he never abused his office. He represented Harlem for 20 years in the state Senate before becoming lieutenant governor in 2006, then governor in 2008, when Eliot Spitzer stepped down during a prostitution scandal.
“I don’t have any plans to resign,” Paterson said Friday. “At a certain point, I will cooperate with the investigations and will be clearing my name.”
Maki Haberfeld, a professor of Police Studies at John Jay Criminal College who specializes in police misconduct, said the state police involvement in the domestic violence affair seemed, at the very least, like an abuse of power.
“This is such a classic corrupt behavior. Let’s intimidate the woman so she won’t complain,” she said. “It’s like stepping back 100 years.”
Whether that intervention was illegal is less clear cut, said Holly Maguigan, a professor of clinical law at New York University Law School.
Intent is key, she said. Paterson may have reached out with the intent of enlisting the woman’s help managing a political crisis, she said, and not for the express purpose of getting her to quit the court case.
“It might appear inappropriate, but without a demonstrated intention to keep the victim from testifying, there is nothing criminal,” she said.
The episode has already led to the resignation of the head of the state police and the governor’s top criminal justice adviser.
With the full story of the administration’s involvement still untold, “there are a lot of ifs,” said defense lawyer Joseph Tacopina, a fierce Paterson critic.
He said that, to him, the early state police intervention looks like “a clear case of obstruction of justice or of witness tampering,” but a lot could depend on exactly what the troopers said to the woman and who instructed them to intervene.
If she was explicitly threatened, or warned there would be unpleasant repercussions if she pressed charges, a prosecutor could make a solid tampering case, Tacopina said.
But, he added, if the trooper approached her as a friend, counseled her on her court options and then gently suggested that high profile domestic abuse cases are sometimes hard on victims, criminal intent might be harder to prove.
“If he just says something like, ‘You really don’t want to do this,’ what does that even mean?” he said. “It is also the state of mind of the listener. Did she feel intimidated?”