New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was the featured speaker at a recent event at Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington, part of the "Conversations on Main Street" series. He was introduced and interviewed by Port's own Elkan Abramowitz, a leading white-collar defense attorney who is included in New York Magazine's listing of New York's lawyers, and is also listed in New York's Super Lawyers. Abramowitz and Cuomo have known each other for a very long time; they met at New York University law school. Cuomo said, "Elkan is an extraordinary legal talent. As a young man I sought his advice."
The first question Abramowitz asked was, "You played a role in the Clinton administration; how does that influence what you do now? [Cuomo was first Assistant Secretary, then Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).] Cuomo responded, "If you are in politics and you start at the federal level, you get a better understanding of how government works." He said, "It was a great experience-we had 14,000 people, a $30 billion budget, and worked in every state." Cuomo added that he was with the Clinton administration "literally from day one," and opined that the administration was "an extraordinary accomplishment for this country-jobs, economy, good image, and bottom line net performance."
Throughout his remarks, Cuomo made it clear that he is proud to serve in the public sector where he can make a big difference. He said that when he assumed the attorney general's job, he was committed to assembling the best legal talent that he could find. He said that he is confident that, to the extent possible, he did that, but regretted that "fewer people want to go into government any more." He said, "People are disillusioned, but I work very hard to get young people into government. It doesn't pay a lot of dollars, but it does pay a lot of rewards."
Cuomo said that, because he has the authority to address virtually any issue, he has to prioritize. He said, "I pick the issue that will make the most difference to the most people." Among his current priorities are health care, the mortgage fraud crisis, consumer fraud, and student loan issues. He said that a major focus of his office is not only to prosecute cases, but to identify the basic problem and offer legislation to prevent its happening again. He gave as an example the problem of sexual predators on the Internet. When the attorney general's office conducted an investigation and found a large number of sexual predators on the Internet, The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Web site operators pointed out that there was no legal mandate for them to stop such predators from going on line. A new law, called the EStop law, prohibits known sex predators from going to Internet sites frequented by young people, and creates an e-mail registry for sex predators against which operators of sites like Facebook and MySpace can check. Cuomo said, "It's the first law of its kind in the country." Another current activity of the attorney general's office is the investigation of fraud in school districts and other special districts, of which Nassau County has an inordinate number (Cuomo said that there are over 500 local governments in the county.) "Even if there is just a little fraud in each district," Cuomo said, "it adds up to a lot. It should never happen. We will investigate it and hopefully remediate it." He called the fraud "reprehensible," adding that it confirms people's cynicism about government.
Abramowitz asked, "What else about public integrity are you doing?" Cuomo responded that, in the past, public integrity was typically not a high priority with the attorney general's office. "But," he said, "I want the taxpayers to believe in this government. The cynicism about state government has never been higher, and that pains me. I want the government to perform." He added, "I believe in the capacity of government. Government is just a collective action of us, and when you say "I give up on government you are giving up on us." Cuomo promised, "I am going to be as aggressive in cleaning up government as Eliot Spitzer [his predecessor] was in cleaning up Wall Street. At the end of the day, I want to be able to say, 'The level of integrity has never been higher.'"
There followed a lively and thoughtful question-and-answer period. In response to a question about increasing judges' salaries, Cuomo said, "They deserve it, and we want to attract the best talent." He added, "It is sad that the chief judge has to sue for a pay increase."
Regarding regulation (asked in the context of the mortgage crisis), Cuomo said, "Effective regulation ends up helping private markets. Markets unregulated will overheat and destroy themselves." He wondered, "How did the federal government let us get to this point? Where was the alphabet soup of government regulatory agencies?" Cuomo pointed out that for the first time in history Americans owe more on our homes than the equity in those homes. He said, "Historically, the equity in one's home was a person's largest asset. That was the retirement account. That was the largest source of first financing for small business."
Other questions had to do with the Martin Tankleff case (Cuomo was the special prosecutor) and the Fair Pay Act mandating equal pay for equal work. Cuomo said that he supports the legislation, but pointed out that there are already anti-discrimination laws on the books and said that they need to be better enforced.