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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Cuomo's use of HUD's public affairs office to undercut Gaffney is consistent with his attempts not to leave any fingerprints on the campaign against her. Most of the dirty work has been delegated to three of his aides: Jon Cowan, Gary Eisenman, and Howard Glaser. Cowan, Cuomo's chief of staff, is best known for co-founding a now-defunct youth advocacy group called Lead . . . or Leave. (After the group folded in 1995, Newsweek revealed it had inflated the membership figures by 90 percent and quoted Cowan saying, "Sometimes you have to be a butthead to get things done.") Eisenman is a deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Housing and was previously an attorney at Cravath, Swain & Moore, an elite New York law firm. Glaser is counselor to Cuomo and worked in the New York state government while Mario Cuomo was governor. Asked to provide information about these three aides' experience in housing issues, the press office did not return repeated calls.

Cuomo refused comment for this article, but one of his press aides, David Egner, told me Cowan and Galser would speak with me off the record. When I told him I needed to be able to attribute their comments to HUD officials, the offer was withdrawn, and Egner sent a statement saying, "I am, frankly, baffled as to why THE WEEKLY STANDARD is devoting attention to this issue." The statement claimed that "many of the professional disputes between HUD and the Office of Inspector general . . . have been settled."

That tensions should exist between Cuomo and Gaffney is understandable, as one of the jobs of an IG is to uncover waste, fraud, and abuse in department operations. And while Gaffney's IG office has highlighted areas where HUD has improved, it hasn't been shy about stating what's wrong with the department, to the never-ending frustration of Cuomo. But what really rankles is that the IG's office doesn't report exclusively to him; thus it can issue reports over which he has an authority. Gaffney has observed in congressional testimony that Cuomo "sees people like me who are . . . not under his direct control as threats, as problems."

Cuomo first lashed out at Gaffney in the fall of 1995. Her office had issued a report on empowerment zones, a program under his purview providing tax incentives for businesses in select low-income urban areas. The report alleged that politics may have influenced which cities were selected for empowerment zones. Cuomo, then an assistant secretary at HUD, was apoplectic when he learned of Gaffney's conclusions. He confronted her and questioned whether her office had the authority to raise such questions (it did). He also told her, repeatedly, that he had serious reservations about the very idea of an independent inspector general.

Cuomo's attitude toward Gaffney was never quite the same after this, but after he was nominated for the top job in the department, he tried to make amends. The day he was sworn in as secretary--by Al Gore--he invited her to a luncheon at Hickory Hill, the McLean, Virginia, estate of his mother-in-law, Ethel Kennedy. Cabinet secretaries, Kennedy family members, and HUD senior staff were among the 100 guests. Amidst the revelry, Gaffney never got a chance to speak with Cuomo, but she did speak with his father. He told her that while governor he had created the first IG office in the New York state government, and he emphasized how much he valued inspectors general. It would soon become clear this was an area where father and son disagreed.

While working in state government in Albany, New York, Andrew Cuomo acquired the nickname "The Big Mamoo," a term of affection given to him by his father to connote both his status as a power-broker and his penchant for using the force of his personality to cajole people into doing what he wanted. Not long after he was installed as secretary, Cuomo began his Big Mamoo routine with Gaffney, communicating with her extensively and seeking her counsel on an array of problems facing HUD. The overtures came as a surprise to Gaffney, who was accustomed to less frequent, and more formal, contact with Cuomo's predecessor, Henry Cisneros.

Before long, Cuomo's communications with Gaffney acquired a new dimension. In addition to the contact at work, he began calling her at home, usually on weekends. During these lengthy calls, he would occasionally ask her advice on policy and personnel matters. But he would also chastise her for issuing reports critical of HUD operations. In one conversation, Cuomo told her all of the department's principal staff hated her and she was responsible for HUD's being "dysfunctional." She later told him none of the assistant secretaries she'd queried had any complaints with her performance as inspector general, but Cuomo replied that they were lying to her.