The Magazine

Andrew Cuomo's Vendetta

From the May 17, 1999 issue: The secretary of HUD goes after his inspector general.

May 17, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 33 • By MATT REES
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SEPTEMBER 9, 1998, will be remembered in Washington as the day Kenneth Starr delivered his impeachment referral to the House of Representatives. But on the same day, another drama was playing out on the other side of Capitol Hill. Susan Gaffney, the inspector general at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was telling a Senate committee about "a truly extraordinary series of events" involving the HUD secretary, Andrew Cuomo. Extraordinary indeed. Gaffney testified Cuomo and his top aides had been interfering with her work, smearing her as a racist and a cheat, and using dirty tricks against her. "It is very debilitating," the softspoken Gaffney told the senators. "One never knows where the next attack is coming from or what it will be."

Not surprisingly, considering the day the testimony was delivered, Gaffney's charges received little coverage. And in the ensuing eight months, she's stayed silent. But the harassment has not only continued, it's intensified. Congressional Democrats, including Henry Waxman, have joined Cuomo's crusade, and private-sector law firms have been awarded lucrative contracts to investigate Gaffney's conduct. The goal is painfully obvious: to make life so miserable for Gaffney she'll resign.

Cuomo is not, of course, just any cabinet secretary. In addition to being a son of the former governor of New York, he's one of the Democratic party's rising stars. His name was bandied about as a candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Pat Moynihan, and he's frequently mentioned as being in line for White House chief of staff in a Gore administration (Gore lobbied for him to be appointed HUD secretary).

So why would he wage such a vigorous campaign against a harmless civil servant? Cuomo doesn't like people who stand between him and what he's trying to accomplish (the New York Times has observed that he "thrives on an almost militaristic devotion to strategy and detail"). That's put him on a collision course with Gaffney, whom he blames for undermining his two top priorities: overhauling HUD and getting good press coverage.

The truth is that Gaffney hasn't undermined him. While her office has refused to endorse his proposed overhaul of HUD, the inspector general has no authority to block a secretary's proposals. As for press coverage, the mainstream media still fawn over him--the New York Observer noted recently that "by all accounts, he has been a success at HUD"--and his only bad press has come from his quarrels with Gaffney.

Susan Gaffney is a most unlikely person to be ensnared in such a bitter dispute. For the past 29 years, she's held a variety of low profile, non-political government posts. Such is the quality of her work that she's been the recipient of numerous performance-based awards, and in June 1993 President Clinton nominated her to be HUD's inspector general. The position carries with it a staff of over 500 and involves auditing and investigating every program that falls under HUD's $ 30 billion annual budget.

Recognizing the potential pitfalls in attacking an inspector general with no apparent political biases, Cuomo has tried to put the best spin on his Gaffney offensive, claiming to know nothing about it and maintaining that he has good relations with her. "On a personal level," he told GQ last year, "I have had and do have a fine relationship with Susan." One of his deputies, Saul Ramirez, echoed this sentiment recently, telling a Senate committee that Cuomo "has had nothing but the utmost respect for Ms. Gaffney."

The claim that Cuomo has a "fine relationship" with Gaffney is greatly at odds with the facts. Following Gaffney's Senate testimony in September, Cuomo unleashed his then-director of public affairs, Karen Hinton, who told the Washington Post the testimony was "riddled with inaccuracies and false statements." She added that Gaffney "is under investigation by the FBI and members of Congress, that a dozen of her employees have made racial complaints against her, that the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors has passed formal resolutions on a pattern of racism by the IG and that Deval Patrick, the former associate attorney general for civil rights, is now investigating her on the most serious charges of racism in the department's history."

Gaffney once asked Cuomo whether his aides had to resort to public and, more often, private attacks like these, and Cuomo told her he was powerless to stop them. When Gaffney questioned this, Cuomo told her his aides viewed her as "the embodiment of evil."