Is Tish James going after the political establishment?

Attorney General Tish James and Assembly Speaker Corey Johnson during her campaign.
Attorney General Tish James and Assembly Speaker Corey Johnson during her campaign.
lev radin/Shutterstock
Attorney General Tish James and Assembly Speaker Corey Johnson during her campaign.

Is Tish James going after the political establishment?

The attorney general is investigating minority lawmakers and the NYPD.
January 24, 2020

Could state Attorney General Letitia James be turning on the establishment?

City & State’s December profile of the state’s top lawyer noted that James seemed to be focusing her office’s efforts much more on President Donald Trump’s federal government than political players in New York. But a couple of recently reported actions by the AG’s office suggest that could be changing.

This week, the Times Union reported that the attorney general’s office had issued subpoenas as part of an ongoing investigation into the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. The Times Union has reported on the group’s fickle finances for years. The NYSABPRL is known best for hosting “Caucus Weekend” in Albany, where elected officials and staff attend parties bankrolled by interest groups with business before the Legislature. Ostensibly, the weekend also hosts conversations on political issues and raises money for college scholarships for racial minority youth. But the association has done a very poor job of that, devoting well under 10% of its revenue towards scholarships. 

An investigation into the NYSABPRL would seem to put James in a slightly uncomfortable position: She has frequently attended past Caucus Weekends and she’s close to many of the legislators and political operatives who could be in the crosshairs of a legal investigation. Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, the group’s chairwoman, considers James a friend and mentor; James is the godmother of Walker’s daughter. 

But when City & State asked James about potential conflicts of interest in a November interview – speaking broadly, rather than this specific case – James was adamant it wouldn’t be a problem, and she wouldn’t recuse herself. “If there's an investigation into any elected official in the state of New York, I would follow the facts and the evidence wherever it leads me,” she said, in a previously unreported quote. “I am not related to anyone, have no personal loyalty to any one individual, and no one is above the law.”

On Friday, James’ office declined to comment on the case, but a source familiar with the investigation confirmed the accuracy of the Times Union’s’ reporting.

Separately, on Jan. 13, James’ office put newly appointed NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea on notice, announcing an investigation into whether the department showed racial bias in its enforcement of fare evasion on busses and subways. The investigation, and the way she publicly announced it, with a number of supportive statements from elected officials who have been critical of the NYPD, could be seen as a rebuke of the department. The NYPD seemed ticked off, with a spokesperson saying officers “enforce the law fairly and equally,” and the cop-boosting New York Post was furious, calling the investigation “an obscene attack.”

James has never been much of a bomb thrower when it comes to the NYPD. Her sister was an NYPD detective for years, and James often went out of her way to praise the department. She recently earned the ire of progressive criminal justice advocates for endorsing changes to the newly enacted bail law, saying that it reduced judicial discretion. James previously told City & State that she didn’t have concerns about the law’s content, and that she even hoped Albany would “go further in the next legislative session.”

James gave the NYPD until February 10 to turn over records in the investigation. And the investigation into the NYSABPRL is ongoing. New York’s political class, most of whom backed James in her historic election in 2018, is sure to be watching.

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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