Cuomo could make splash with Tankleff case


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9:49 PM EST, January 13, 2008

After a year in which he investigated white-collar and financial crimes, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has a chance to make a political splash with the Martin Tankleff investigation, several political onlookers said.

Assigned by Gov. Eliot Spitzer to investigate the case of the former Belle Terre man who spent half his life in prison for the slaying of his parents before being released last month, Cuomo will have an opportunity to create an image of himself as tough on crime.

"If he finds that there are other people responsible, then it's a tremendous public safety achievement," said Assemb. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria). "If the best he can do is to find that Marty Tankleff is not responsible, that is him standing on the side of justice."

But William Cunningham, a Manhattan political consultant who has been an aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and advised former governors Mario Cuomo and Hugh Carey, said he doesn't anticipate Cuomo getting a political boost.

"If you run for attorney general, you can expect to get these kinds of assignments from time to time," he said. "The best thing the attorney general can do is do a very thorough job, and whatever the final decision is, be able to support it with facts and evidence."

Seymour Lachman, a former state senator from Brooklyn, said Cuomo will assume a small political risk in taking the case, although both he and Spitzer may benefit if it is handled competently.

"I think the governor is trying to develop a strategy for his long-range plans for reform and trying to get as many people aboard who can help him," said Lachman, a professor of political science at Wagner College. "I think it ties the two together more than before."

The situation facing Cuomo is a far cry from other high-profile cases in which New York governors tapped their attorneys general for similar roles.

After Tawana Brawley accused Wappingers Falls police officers of raping her in 1987, Gov. Mario Cuomo assigned Attorney General Robert Abrams as special prosecutor in the case. In part because of the racial tension surrounding the case, Cuomo's move was widely seen as Cuomo placing Abrams in an unwinnable political spot.

The Abrams grand jury ultimately found Brawley's claims without merit, though Brawley's advisers loudly and harshly criticized Abrams in the media.

The Tankleff case is also not the first time Spitzer has given a significant political opportunity to Cuomo, who is his successor in the attorney general's office but often seen as a political rival. Cuomo in July issued a report admonishing Spitzer's aides for ordering State Police to maintain travel records for Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick).

Cuomo also made headlines for investigations into the student loan and mortgage industries, and the safety of the Facebook Web site.

Freelance writer Emerson Clarridge contributed to this story.