Unlike most public officials, New York’s hard-charging attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, doesn’t keep a written daily schedule.
That’s according to his office, which, after two separate Freedom of Information requests from The Observer, finally said that Mr. Cuomo simply didn’t have any pre-existing documentation of his day-to-day professional and political activities that he could make public.
It’s the nature of his job, an aide explained.
"The vast majority of the attorney general’s time each day is spent working on and being briefed on our cases and investigations," said Benjamin Lawsky, a special assistant and deputy counsel to Mr. Cuomo.
Mr. Cuomo’s office eventually did provide a reconstituted outline of his public schedule between January 2007, when he took office, and April 2008. It is five pages long, listing press conferences, public outings and political events. They said it includes everything of a nonsensitive nature.
According to the outline, the New York events ranged, geographically, from Mr. Cuomo’s press conferences about "upstate Guns & Gangs," held in Buffalo and Rochester on Jan. 8, 2007, to a "Meeting with Reverend Sharpton and Nicole Paultre" at the AG’s office two days later.
There was national networking with other attorneys general, such as a June 20 trip to Atlanta for the "Regional Attorneys General Breakfast, Eastern Region." And there were appearances with corporate (and possibly political) tie-ins, such as "Bloomberg L.L.P. Continuing Legal Education Speech re: role of corporate general counsel" on Oct. 4, 2007, at the "Bloomberg Building."
The schedule also includes the four campaign events Mr. Cuomo held for his reelection committee, Andrew Cuomo 2010. The first was a breakfast at the University Club on May 21, 2007, followed by a June 13 event at Le Parker Meridien, a breakfast at the Penn Club on Oct. 2, 2007, and most recently, an event on Feb. 6 in Great Neck.
And like his upwardly (and downwardly) mobile predecessor Eliot Spitzer, Mr. Cuomo has also been highly active traveling the state to make political appearances on behalf of other Democrats. At various points throughout 2007, he appeared at campaign events in support of State Senate candidate Craig Johnson on Long Island, State Senator Eric Schneiderman in Manhattan, county executive candidate Joe Ruggiero in Dutchess, county executive candidate Jim Keane in Erie, county executive candidate Bill Magnarelli in Syracuse, and upstate Congressional candidate Dan Maffei in Manhattan.
There is one notable gap in last year’s schedule. Mr. Cuomo did not have a single event logged for all of July 2007, a month that began with a July 1 news story in an Albany newspaper about State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno’s use of a state helicopter for political travel, and his claim that Eliot Spitzer improperly had the state police spying on him. Both immediately called on Mr. Cuomo to investigate the matter. And Mr. Cuomo did, issuing a report chastising Mr. Spitzer’s staff on July 23.
("The gaps in Mr. Cuomo’s public schedules are a direct result of the time he’s spent working on ongoing investigations, and speak to his hands-on nature of running the office," Mr. Lawsky said.)
Mr. Cuomo ended 2007 on Dec. 13 in "NYC," at a holiday party hosted by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union—their endorsement in 2006 had served as the Cuomo campaign’s kickoff fund-raising event.
Fine, as far as it goes.
But what about Mr. Cuomo’s explanation for not keeping a more complete record of his activities?
On one hand, there is clearly something to the fact that as an official whose job entails conducting sensitive investigations, there may be things that Mr. Cuomo can’t and shouldn’t reveal.
On the other, a number of public officials interviewed for this story, including two of Mr. Cuomo’s predecessors in the attorney general’s office, seemed to find the idea that Mr. Cuomo doesn’t maintain written schedules at all to be somewhat improbable.
"I don’t know why you can’t put on your schedule, ‘He met with Smith, head of the bureau,’" said Oliver Koppell, who filled the unfinished term of Attorney General Robert Abrams in 1994. Mr. Koppell, who served in the Assembly for 23 years, is finishing his second term as a councilman from the Bronx. He added, "I don’t know any public official’s schedule which doesn’t lay out hour-by-hour what that person is doing."
Asked about keeping a personal schedule, Dennis Vacco, who served as attorney general from 1995 to 1998, said, "Did we maintain that? Sure we maintained that. My schedule was available, typically, to the senior staff. The senior staff knew what I was doing for the whole week."
Mr. Vacco did say that he accepted the explanation provided by Cuomo’s office about its hesitancy to disclose the details of the attorney general’s daily agenda. "It is legitimate—I do understand his logic,” he said. “He does not want to give you information about meeting with [assistant] AGs, investigators or other law enforcement agencies, because even if he gave you the name of those individuals, then you might be able to cut and paste and figure out what cases he might conferring about. So I do understand that logic."
But Vacco added, "On the other hand, if he’s meeting with the editor of the Jewish Press, or the Forward, or The New York Times, if he’s got a reporter in his office or if Senator Clinton comes in to meet with him, that ought to be on his schedule."
This was essentially the explanation that Mr. Cuomo’s office gave.
Mr. Lawsky, a former federal prosecutor, had said that Mr. Cuomo’s job simply doesn’t lend itself to the keeping of daily schedules, like the ones that most other elected officials routinely use, because of the sensitive nature of his duties, which include meeting for hours at a time with witnesses and whistleblowers about ongoing investigations.
"We have to spend a lot of time making sure we protect the identities of whistleblowers, witnesses and complainants because we don’t want people to be afraid to come forward," he said, during an interview earlier this month in his office on the 25th floor of 120 Broadway, which has a view of the federal courthouses at Foley Square. "In addition, obviously, when he’s having meetings about investigations and cases, it’s extremely important we keep the details and nature of those meetings confidential, because, if people knew, for example, we were meeting about an ongoing investigation, it may hurt the investigation. So, it’s very important we protect the confidentiality of those meetings."
(Moments before Mr. Lawsky began his explanation, Cuomo appeared in the doorway, jacket off, cufflinks in place. He had just emerged from what I was told was a confidential meeting, and was on his way to deliver remarks to the New York State United Teachers annual conference in midtown.)
Mr. Lawsky said that Mr. Cuomo and his top aides are intently focused on their caseload. He said there have been more than 100 meetings about their well-publicized student loan investigation in 2007 alone; at least another 50 on home mortgage fraud; 60 on public integrity—including, presumably, all the Spitzer-related stuff from July 2007; 50 on environmental investigations; and 75 on Medicaid fraud and other health care fraud cases.
All of these made it difficult to account in too much detail for Mr. Cuomo’s doings.
Interestingly, Mr. Cuomo—who is unofficially but unmistakably interested in running for higher office at some point in the future—has sought to make transparency and openness in government one of the hallmarks of his t
enure, and he reaped considerable public-relations benefits last year from hiring New York Public Interest Research Group executive director Blair Horner, a well-known good-government watchdog, as his legislative director. (Mr. Horner recently left the attorney general’s office to return to his post at NYPIRG.)
After creating a database to cross-reference legislators’ bills, member items, the political contributions they received and who lobbies them, Mr. Cuomo was named the honorary chairman of the New York Press Association’s Sunshine Week, which focuses on accessing government information.
"By definition, government is only as good as the trust citizens’ place in it," Mr. Cuomo said in a public statement that announced he was being honored. "That trust can be earned when information that can empower the citizenry is pulled from the shadows and made open and accessible."
A cynical explanation of the refusal to release even a redacted set of real-time schedules by Mr. Cuomo—a publicity-conscious individual, even by politicians’ standards—is that he’s intent on telling his story in his own way, and on his own timeline. He has been careful since taking office to publicize his work as attorney general—investigations into school-loan scandals, Medicaid fraud and mortgage lending rip-offs—while not actually being seen to promote himself personally, in the way that he frequently did in the days before his calamitous first bid for public office in 2002.
So in the matter of his selectively provided schedule, has he met his own high standards?
Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, a good-government group, said, "You do not want to make available your schedule if you’re in the midst of an investigation, and tip off the subjects. That makes sense. But then why not just provide the schedule and have those meetings blacked out?"
I also called NYPIRG’s Mr. Horner—the former Cuomo employee—who promptly referred me to a nonconflicted colleague.
"I assume there is some way of tracking his appointments in his calendar," said Russ Haven, NYPIRG’s legislative counsel. "Perhaps there is some exception because he’s a law enforcement official. But I think those kind of things, whether it’s the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller, would be fair game, since they’re public officials."