ALBANY (CN) – New York lawmakers began interviewing applicants Tuesday to finish out the year as state attorney general after Eric Schneiderman resigned abruptly last week in the wake of shocking abuse allegations published by The New Yorker.
Schneiderman announced his departure less than four hours after New Yorker published the article by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, which detailed the claims of four women who say they were in abusive relationships with the Democrat.
Per state protocol, Barbara Underwood, who served as New York’s solicitor general since 2007, was sworn in as acting attorney general by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore of the New York Court of Appeals on May 8.
Underwood will serve until the state Legislature appoints an interim attorney general, who, in turn, will serve until voters elect a new attorney general this fall.
One tumultuous week later, Underwood was the first applicant Tuesday to face questions from the bipartisan, bicameral committee of the Legislature, chaired by Democrat Assemblyman Joseph Lentol.
In his opening statement, Lentol emphasized that “the attorney general is the people’s lawyer,” referencing an unofficial handle for Louis J. Lefkowitz, who held the Albany office for more than two decades from 1957 through 1978.
Nearly every assemblymember and senator on the committee praised Underwood’s credentials effusively; Democrat Senator Brad Hoylman called her a “real lawyer’s lawyer.”
Without mentioning her predecessor by name, 73-year-old Underwood acknowledged the unusual circumstances that triggered the office’s vacancy. “But we are here, after deeply disturbing allegations that shocked me and many others, and that caused the prior attorney general to resign,” Underwood said. “The result is that this important office is vacant at a critical time for our state and country.”
Underwood credited her experience as distinguishing her from the other applicants, “I believe that, at this critical time, the attorney general must be a stabilizing and strong voice for the rule of law,” she said. “I’ve argued 20 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, 21 cases before our state’s highest court, and 33 cases in the Second Circuit – and I’ve closely supervised the work of other attorneys on hundreds more. I assure you that I can be that voice.”
Underwood repeatedly stressed that she would continue to bring “straight, honest, apolitical judgment,” as well as professional manner to the office of the attorney general. “I have pursued the cause of justice in the courts, without fear or favor, for all of my professional life,” she said, reading from a prepared statement.
“And I am not a politician,” Underwood added. “Some people joke that the National Association of Attorneys General — NAAG — is also the National Association of Aspiring Governors. There’s some truth to that, but I can assure you that is not who I am.”
Though she said on the record she will not run for the office in 2018 elections, Underwood said she can bring stability to the position in the meantime.
Members of the committee prodded Underwood with questions that underscored the advantage of her familiarity with the office from her decade as solicitor general. “I know the work of the office already,” she said. “It would be a much quicker and easier transition for than for someone who needed to get up to speed on all of that.”
Thomas Abinanti, the next applicant whom the committee considered Tuesday, joked that the room had already cleared out, and that the state “could do a lot worse” than Underwood.
The Legislature had previously announced 16 applicants to be questioned by the committee, which was down to 13 on Tuesday, following dropouts from David Yassky, the chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission who is also a former member of the New York City Council; former Assistant Secretary of State Jose W. Fernandez; and Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney.
Yassky offered his support for Underwood on Twitter on Monday, describing her as “a superlative public servant and is uniquely equipped to serve as attorney general at this juncture.
“As a New Yorker, I am grateful for Ms. Underwood’s willingness to serve, and I urge the Legislature to designate her to fill the vacancy,” Yassky wrote.
The pool applicants for interim attorney general include several other women. One of these, Nicole Gueron, is a founding partner at Clarick Gueron Reisbaum LLP. Gueron served as the deputy chief trial counsel to Schneiderman’s predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, who this year is running for a third term as New York governor.
Another applicant, Elizabeth Holtzman, is a former congresswoman who served on the House Judiciary Committee that oversaw the impeachment of President Richard Nixon and co-founded the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues in 1977.
The interviews will continue Wednesday morning at 10 a.m.
Cuomo last week appointed Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas as a special prosecutor to head up the criminal investigation of Schneiderman, taking over for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office has announced its own investigation based on the allegations said to have occurred there.