Top Cuomo aide’s book says investigation nixed Byron Brown’s selection as Cuomo running mate

ALBANY – If not for a phone conversation nearly a decade ago, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown – not Kathy Hochul – might currently be the governor of New York State.

In a new book, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo writes that in 2014, Brown was Cuomo’s top choice to be the governor’s running mate atop the Democratic Party ticket.

But according to the book, Cuomo’s vetting process turned up information that federal investigators were eyeing Brown. Instead, Cuomo endorsed Hochul to be his lieutenant governor. Upon Cuomo’s resignation in 2021, Hochul ascended to the governorship.

The account about Brown comes from a new book by Melissa DeRosa, former secretary to the governor, entitled: “What’s Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics & Crisis.”

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The book, available Tuesday, is DeRosa’s unvarnished view of her time as a top aide to Cuomo, amid the rise and fall of one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent figures. DeRosa provided an excerpt to The Buffalo News concerning Brown.

The book also focuses attention on those DeRosa considers culpable for forcing Cuomo’s resignation. Other portions DeRosa has shared with various media – concerning alleged interactions with Attorney General Letitia James, and separately, a New York Times reporter – have already drawn headlines. DeRosa is also a longtime critic of Hochul, and the book contains unflattering characterizations of Cuomo’s successor. 

Melissa DeRosa

Melissa DeRosa, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is the author of the new book “What’s Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics & Crisis.”

Cuomo was first elected governor in 2010. After one term, Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy of Rochester, decided to take a job in the private sector. And as Cuomo sought re-election in 2014, he wanted his new lieutenant governor to be from Western New York.

“Being from Queens, Cuomo believed strongly that governing the entire state meant having regional balance represented in its statewide elected officials and was single-mindedly focused on Buffalo,” DeRosa writes. “His sights were set on Byron Brown, a working-class, African American mayor of the Queen City, known for his pragmatism and operational fortitude, whom Cuomo got along with very well personally.”

Mutually advantageous relationship

Cuomo and Brown have long been friends, and have had a mutually advantageous political relationship.

When Cuomo announced he was running for governor in 2002, Brown attended the Manhattan event – even through Brown, who is African American, was formally supporting Cuomo’s opponent, Comptroller Carl McCall, who was running to become the state’s first Black governor.

When Brown was running for Buffalo mayor in 2005, Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, made his first public appearance in Buffalo in 11 years to campaign for Brown.

When Andrew Cuomo sought to resuscitate his political career in 2006, running for state attorney general, Brown endorsed Cuomo over another candidate in the Democratic primary, former U.S. Attorney Denise O’Donnell, despite O’Donnell being a Buffalonian. Cuomo won that 2006 campaign, and when Cuomo successfully ran for governor in 2010, Brown was again a key supporter.

Two former U.S. attorneys, witnesses interviewed by the FBI and a veteran defense lawyer familiar with the probes told The Buffalo News they don’t expect any charges to be filed against Brown before the Nov. 2 mayoral election.

In 2014, The News reported that Brown was quite interested in the lieutenant governor post. But according to DeRosa, as well as a former senior adviser to Cuomo who spoke to The News on the condition of anonymity, an issue emerged during the vetting process.

According to the former Cuomo senior adviser, Cuomo’s camp had heard rumors Brown might be of interest in a federal criminal investigation.

The senior Cuomo adviser – not DeRosa – called an official from a federal law enforcement investigative agency, asking if putting Brown on the ticket could be potentially problematic.

According to the former senior Cuomo adviser, while both the questions and answers were oblique, the conversation “more or less confirmed” that Brown was of interest in a federal criminal investigation.

Cuomo’s camp, according to DeRosa’s book, found out that Brown’s name had come up in a “wide-ranging US Attorney’s Office investigation into some of western New York’s most influential power players.”

“While we didn’t believe Brown was involved or that he would do anything unethical (he was ultimately cleared), the unknowns around the nascent case were fraught, and, wanting to avoid even the hint of a scandal, Cuomo was forced to move on from his first choice,” DeRosa writes.

Notably, the vetting information about Brown did not emanate from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York – which, at that time, was run by William Hochul, Kathy’s husband.

In 2015, state and federal law enforcement officers executed search warrants at several homes of Buffalo political figures, including Brown’s former First Deputy Mayor Steve Casey. In subsequent years, the federal government searched the home of another Brown confidant, subpoenaed City Hall records, and hauled away dozens of boxes of records in 2019, while executing a search warrant at the City Hall office of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which Brown chairs.

FBI removes boxes from Buffalo City Hall

Federal agents executing a search warrant remove evidence from Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency in Buffalo City Hall in 2019.

But Brown has never been charged with any crime.

This week, Brown’s office declined to address whether Cuomo had in fact passed on appointing Brown.

“In a few months it will be 2024, an entire decade later,” said Brown spokesman Michael DeGeorge. “Mayor Brown doesn’t go backward, he goes forward.”

DeRosa’s account in her book – that Cuomo passed on selecting Brown as his running mate – conflicts with accounts anonymously given to The News in 2014, accounts published just hours before Cuomo endorsed a different candidate for lieutenant governor. One anonymous source told the newspaper that on the evening of May 20, 2014, Brown called Cuomo and withdrew his name from consideration. A second told the newspaper that Brown had become “less enamored” with the idea of being lieutenant governor and was being “urged to remain in Buffalo and preside over progress in the city” and serve out the remainder of his third term.

By the time Brown was said to have withdrawn his name, the governor’s announcement of a running mate was imminent. Less than a day after the reported phone call from Brown, at the State Democratic Party convention, Cuomo named Hochul. The decision did not seem especially rushed: Cuomo and Hochul announced the decision in a pre-produced, three-minute video.

“He settled for Hochul, a one-term white Congresswoman from Buffalo’s suburbs who sounded Canadian when she spoke,” DeRosa writes. “She would supposedly help ‘shore up the moderates’ and solidify the western New York vote for Cuomo. Back then, I vehemently believed the state was, in fact, moving more and more left, and selecting Hochul would anger our downstate progressive base.”

‘Never a Hochul fan’

DeRosa, who in 2014 was serving as Cuomo’s communications director, writes that she never favored Hochul’s selection.

“It was no secret within the administration that I was never a Hochul fan,” DeRosa writes. “She was an A-rated member of the NRA who was best known for pandering to white Republican voters by threatening to arrest undocumented New Yorkers attempting to obtain driver’s licenses, and I felt she lacked policy chops and hurt the ticket more than she helped.”

In response to DeRosa’s criticisms, Hochul spokesman Anthony Hogrebe said that the governor “is busy leading the State of New York and will not be engaging with tired and petty personal attacks.”

Cuomo and Hochul did not have a close relationship, a distance that remained during Hochul’s more than six years serving as lieutenant governor.

Cuomo – facing impeachment amid a sexual harassment scandal – resigned in 2021. Hochul became governor and was left with her own decision about whom to appoint as lieutenant governor.

Hochul quickly chose Brian Benjamin, a Black state senator from Manhattan, who could help shore up downstate, minority voters in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor.

DeRosa argues that Hochul did not rigorously vet Benjamin in the same way Cuomo had vetted Brown. If Hochul’s office had sufficiently checked with law enforcement entities, DeRosa argues, Hochul might have discovered that Benjamin was under investigation at the time of his appointment.

The university said it won’t disclose the names of the semifinalists who are competing for the job, and it won’t hold any forums to allow students, faculty and community members to interact with them.

At the time of that appointment, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had already served a subpoena to a Benjamin political campaign from 2021, inquiring about the suspicious donations to bid for New York City comptroller.

The New York Times reported that, as part of a customary background investigation, state police had asked the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office if it had anything to share about Benjamin – and was told it did not. But it was not clear whether Hochul’s office reached out through unofficial channels to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office or federal prosecutors, the Times reported, noting Cuomo’s office did make such informal calls.

“Hochul didn’t use the vetting process Cuomo established years earlier for reviewing potential running mates,” DeRosa writes. “Her lieutenant governor was under investigation at the time that she selected him. Seven months into her tenure, he was indicted.”

In April 2022, Benjamin was charged by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office with allegedly accepting fraudulent campaign donations in exchange for providing a taxpayer-funded grant to a donor. The donor pled guilty, and Benjamin resigned from office.

But Benjamin has maintained his innocence. Several of the most serious charges were thrown out by a federal judge, a dismissal now being appealed by prosecutors, ahead of a Benjamin trial.

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