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Cuomo Ally Resigns From Post as State Watchdog

The New York State inspector general resigned on Friday, becoming the latest in a string of high-profile departures from state government as …

Cuomo Ally Resigns From Post as State Watchdog

The New York State inspector general resigned on Friday, becoming the latest in a string of high-profile departures from state government as allies and appointees of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo follow him into private life.

Letizia Tagliafierro had been one of Mr. Cuomo’s loyalists for more than a decade, working for him when he was state attorney general and later serving as special counsel to the governor.

A prosecutor by training, Ms. Tagliafierro was appointed inspector general by Mr. Cuomo in 2019. As a key state watchdog, she was charged with ferreting out fraud, corruption and abuse across state government.

Under Ms. Tagliafierro’s leadership, the inspector general’s office investigated a facilities director at SUNY Empire State who had used $31,000 in taxpayer funds to buy a snowblower and kitchen appliances, as well as a nationally known transparency advocate who sexually harassed a reporter. Most often though, cases concerned wrongdoing on a smaller scale: a state worker who sold scrap metal out of his car during work hours, or a roofer who failed to provide workers’ compensation insurance to his employees.

John Kaehny, a good-government advocate, said Ms. Tagliafierro’s appointment was part of a broad pattern within the Cuomo administration of defanging watchdogs. “She was appointed by Cuomo to essentially be a political commissar, not an ethics enforcer,” he said.

Part of Ms. Tagliafierro’s responsibilities included a stint on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE; she was appointed to a staff role at the commission in 2012 and later became its executive director.

As inspector general, Ms. Tagliafierro drew criticism over her involvement in one case: JCOPE had been investigating an issue that involved Joseph Percoco, another longtime governor’s aide, when it emerged that the commission’s private deliberations had leaked to Mr. Cuomo.

Under state law it is a misdemeanor for commissioners to share confidential information, and the revelations led to scandal.

But when the matter landed in her lap in 2019, Ms. Tagliafierro said that she could not oversee it because of her history with the commission. She recused herself from the inspector general’s investigation, which closed without finding wrongdoing. Later, it was revealed that the investigation concluded without interviewing key figures.

Last month, the commission voted to reopen the leak matter and the inspector general’s investigation of it, referring both to the state attorney general, Letitia James. The commission’s vote came shortly after a former JCOPE commissioner told a State Senate ethics panel that the handling of the leak investigation showed that the inspector general’s office was either “incompetent or corrupt,” according to Senator Alessandra Biaggi.

The attorney general’s office, however, declined to investigate the matter, saying that under the rules, two appointees of the governor had to refer the matter to Ms. James’s office. None had.

Last week, after Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed two commissioners to JCOPE, it voted 11 to 1 to again refer the leak to the attorney general’s office.

Haley Viccaro, a spokeswoman for Ms. Hochul, described the resignation as “a mutual agreement and understanding.”

“We’re going to be operating differently, hiring people who are highly qualified and independent,” Ms. Viccaro said, adding, “It was Letizia’s decision to resign, we appreciate and accept that.”

The chief deputy inspector general, Robyn Adair, will replace Ms. Tagliafierro until Ms. Hochul makes a permanent appointment. The inspector general’s office and Ms. Tagliafierro declined to comment.

Several allies of Mr. Cuomo have stepped down in recent weeks, after he resigned following a state attorney general report that found he sexually harassed 11 women.

Two top staffers, Melissa DeRosa and Richard Azzopardi, as well as Linda Lacewell, the head of Department of Financial Services, have moved on after the attorney general’s report found they had helped the former governor respond to and contain allegations of sexual harassment.

And three Cuomo appointees to the ethics commission — Camille Varlack, Daniel Horowitz, and James Dering — have resigned in the past month, although Mr. Dering was recently reappointed by Ms. Hochul.

​​Other appointees have found themselves the subject of speculation around their futures. Howard Zucker, whose handling of nursing home deaths as health commissioner attracted wide criticism, remains with the administration. So too do Robert Mujica, who served as Mr. Cuomo’s budget director, and Janet DiFiore, another JCOPE alumna, now serving as the state’s top judge.

A longtime Cuomo ally, Larry Schwartz, chief strategy officer of OTG, an airport concessions company, stepped down from his position as the governor’s “vaccine czar” in the spring. He is still listed on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, however.

Ms. Hochul, who was sworn in Aug. 24, has said that she will take the first 45 days of her administration to review existing appointments.

Whomever Ms. Hochul appoints, the inspector general, under state law, will continue to report to the governor’s secretary. Under Mr. Cuomo, that position was most recently held by one of the governor’s closest allies, Ms. DeRosa. “If you had an independent inspector general, they would have been very busy during Cuomo’s time in office,” said Mr. Kaehny, the good-government advocate.

Ms. Adair, Ms. Tagliafierro’s temporary replacement, has been with the agency since 2020. Like her predecessor, Ms. Adair is an attorney who has worked closely with Mr. Cuomo, serving as his special counsel for ethics, risk and compliance.

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