NY gov faces legal minefield in conduct inquiries

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.
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
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.
"I don't have any plans to resign," he 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?"

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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