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Underwood steps in as Albany deals with the aftermath of Schneiderman scandal

New York State Attorney General's Office
Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood was sworn in by New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Solicitor General Barbara Underwood became acting attorney general on Tuesday, taking over for the disgraced Eric Schneiderman, who resigned after a New Yorker article detailed four women who accused him of numerous instances of physical violence.

At the state Capitol, many were stunned at the rapid demise of the once-popular Democratic attorney general and began maneuvering to name a successor.

Shock, disappointment and disgust were the most common words used by lawmakers to describe their reaction when they read the article detailing the accusations that Schneiderman hit, choked, threatened and belittled three women that he dated, and slapped another woman who refused his sexual advances.

Schneiderman denied the allegations, saying he was engaged in consensual role-playing.

Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, an Albany Democrat, was named the chairwoman of the Assembly Task Force on Women’s Issues just one week ago. She said she first heard the news when she arrived home about 8 p.m. Monday. She said she immediately had to sit down.

“I was completely in shock,” Fahy said. “I’m still in shock today.” 

Under the state constitution, the Legislature picks a successor when there is a vacancy in the attorney general’s office. The successor serves until the next statewide election, which occurs this November.

Assembly Democrats numerically have the most members of any of the factions in the Legislature, and so it is up to them to pick the person to succeed Schneiderman.

Assembly Ways and Means committee chairwoman Helene Weinstein has been mentioned as a possible successor, but she said she’s not interested.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie took a cautious approach, saying no decision has been made yet on exactly how to proceed. Several lawmakers said they think the Legislature needs to appoint a woman to the job. Heastie said he’s open to that.

“I’ve always believed in diversity,” Heastie said after a private meeting with Assembly Democrats.

Credit New York State Attorney General's Office
Acting Attorney General Underwood was sworn in by New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the allegations against Schneiderman are “deeply disturbing” and he credits the women who came forward.

“I think these women were especially courageous,” said Cuomo, who noted they were dealing with “the top law enforcement” official in New York state. “According to the article, they were threatened not to say anything, and they came forward anyway.”

Cuomo said he doesn’t plan to interfere with the Legislature’s choice, but he said it should be an open process, with public interviews of candidates. And he said the Democratic state convention occurs in two weeks, so perhaps lawmakers should wait.

“The Democratic Party is not bound by the legislative process,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo controls the Democratic Party and presumably would have more control over the choice of the candidate. 

The governor said there’s also no immediate need to have a new attorney general. He said acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who he appointed, is competent and a “top-quality person” and that the office is not “rudderless.”

Late Tuesday, Cuomo appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations of abuse by Schneiderman. Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas will investigate and possibly prosecute "any and all matters concerning the public allegations" against Schneiderman, Cuomo said, including whether Schneiderman used his staff or office resources to facilitate the alleged abusive liaisons.

Schneiderman, who has resigned, has implied his conduct was either welcomed by the women, or was not as they described.

Fahy said whoever Schneiderman’s successor is, he or she needs to hit the ground running and take control of a number of important lawsuits that the former attorney general has filed, including over 100 court actions against President Donald Trump and his administration.

Schneiderman also was trying to build criminal cases against former Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn in case the president pardoned them or Robert Mueller’s special investigation was halted.

“Whoever moves into this has to be as strong and as aggressive as possible,” Fahy said, “to really take on what is a national role.” 

Already, potential candidates to run in either a Democratic primary or general election have expressed interest. State Sen. Mike Gianaris, who until recently was deputy Democratic leader, said his phone has been buzzing with texts and messages from people urging him to run.

“I’m flattered that people would think I could be trusted with that important position,” Gianaris said.

Zephyr Teachout, who challenged Cuomo in the 2014 gubernatorial Democratic primary, tweeted that she might be interested, saying that she is “seriously considering running for attorney general.”

Other names mentioned include Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, who narrowly lost the Democratic primary for attorney general to Schneiderman in 2010, and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.