Republican attorney general candidate Keith Wofford is staking his long-shot bid on a chain of beliefs—namely, that his opponent is inescapably tied to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that Cuomo’s image is inextricably linked to the recent corruption trials of his associates, and that voters would rather place their bets with Wofford, a private bankruptcy attorney and veteran Wall Street analyst with no experience in government service or public law.
“The cost of corruption is killing us. It’s absolutely killing us, it’s driving out jobs, it’s driving out business, it’s driving out productive citizens and taxpayers,” Wofford said in an interview with City Limits.
He went on to question whether the attorney general needs permission from the state legislature to pursue corruption as Democratic nominee Letitia James believes.
“I have an opponent who, when asked how she’s going to go after corruption, says she has to get permission from Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature in order to go after corruption, and that’s just legally and factually wrong. And also an abdication of the duties of the attorney general,” Wofford said.
State Republicans see Wofford as their best hope to challenge Democrats on a statewide level: The state party has transferred $450,000 to his campaign, twice the combined total of its support for GOP gubernatorial and comptroller candidates Marc Molinaro and Jonathan Trichter.
And polls indicate Wofford is a smart bet: In the most recent look at the race, a Sienna Poll released October 1, Wofford trailed James by 14 points—a nail-biter compared to the races for governor (Cuomo with a 22-point lead over Molinaro), comptroller (Tom DiNapoli with a 32-point lead over Trichter) or U.S. Senate (Kirsten Gillibrand with a 32-point lead over Chele Chiavacci Farley).
Wofford’s focus on corruption and Cuomo is in line with many of New York’s Republican politicians in the midterm cycle, as they hope to seize on recent trials to portray their Democrats opponents as untrustworthy and out of touch.
But it’s unclear that any such clear contrast is easily drawn in an attorney general’s race where both major-party candidates have accepted massive amounts of high-dollar donations (Wofford and James have raised nearly identical amounts—$1.2 million each—in checks of $10,000 or more) and where purported outsiders like Wofford are mostly funded by people with ties to securities and finance, according to public records.
Plenty of money on hand
Despite his long-shot odds Wofford’s campaign is well-financed, and he is neck in neck with James in terms of cash on hand, with just over $400,000. His donors include Home Depot financier Kenneth Langone ($35,000), Andrea Catsimatidas, NY State GOP Vice Chairwoman for Manhattan ($20,000), as well as Success Academy President Samuel Cole. ($24,000) Wofford, whose salary at the Ropes & Gray law firm in 2017 was between $4.35 and 4.45 million, lent his campaign $50,000.
Also among Wofford’s supporters is former AIG head Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who helped host a fundraiser that netted him $285,987 as first reported by City & State. Greenberg was forced out of AIG after a securities fraud investigation in 2005, subsequently fought the Attorney General’s office for 12 years and paid a $9 million settlement. Now 92, he is lobbying for federal legislation that would curtail the Martin Act, the powerful state securities law that then-Attorney General Elliot Spitzer used to prosecute him.
It is no surprise that Greenberg supports Wofford. The candidate has spoken out strongly against the Martin Act, a broad law which allows the state to prosecute securities fraud without first proving an intent to cause harm. “The attorney general using that act has incredible discretion to bring charges based upon flimsy or non-existent grievances,” Wofford said to City Limits. He then added that he would enforce the law if he was attorney general, but would attempt to use it without “going overboard.”
Wofford arose from relative obscurity when he was nominated to be the GOP attorney general candidate in May, leading to speculation about his connections and finances. Perhaps adding to these questions are his views, which at times hew closer to those of centrist Democrats than the GOP. He has spoken about the need for criminal justice reform, specifically advocating the amendment of the state’s antiquated discovery laws. Wofford donated $4,600 to Barack Obama’s 2008 residential run and $26,000 to his 2009 inauguration. Wofford also has donated to Mayor Bill de Blasio, but told the NY Times he regrets this. His campaign has sent out press releases broadcasting his plan to combat the opioid epidemic – a claim which led to criticism when the Daily News revealed his law firm had defended Purdue Pharma, the makers of Oxycontin.
But Wofford has also donated to Republican political campaigns for years and was one of few statewide politicians who told City and State that he voted for Donald Trump. In a midterm so strongly defined by Trump, Wofford is quick to change the subject when asked about his support for the president, eager instead to press the relationship between Cuomo and James. But he says he’d be willing to look into the possibility that Trump had committed fraud to the tune of $400 million in untaxed gifts from his father, as the New York Times reported, and recoup the money for the state.
Wofford has chosen a shrewd campaign manager, too: well-known and controversial Republican operative E. O’Brien Murray. In 2011, Murray led Republican Bob Turner to an upset congressional victory after inflaming Islamophobia around the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.
An analyst before the crisis
The narrative Wofford puts forth in his ad campaign is that of a blue-collar Western New Yorker still connected to his hardscrabble roots, and he’s quick to add in interviews that his father worked in a Chevy Plant. “I don’t let my education get in the way of my common sense,” Wofford said after talking about his upbringing.
But for over 20 years he’s worked on Wall Street, first as an analyst for Moody’s, and now as a co-managing partner for Ropes & Gray, where he focuses on reclaiming distressed debt.
Wofford worked as an analyst at Moody’s credit rating agency from 1998 to 2001. Early on as a Moody’s analyst, he frequently commented to the financial press about federal investigations into predatory lending and whether investors should be troubled by them. He suggested they should not, because the firms in question were insured. Finance experts who spoke to City Limits say Wofford’s analysis at the time was accurate and unremarkable, since the lawsuits in question had little impact on the larger economy, and few knew the course that predatory lending would lay out for the global economy nearly a decade later.
Despite his vociferous stance against regulation, Wofford looks back at his time at the ratings agencies and gives an analysis that would be shared by many Democrats. He says that the system had a “structural problem,” because “they give advice to investors, but they’re paid for by the issuers of securities.” When asked about regulations, he said he was a proponent of stress tests—simulations meant to demonstrate how a financial institution would operate in a crisis.
He joined Ropes & Gray in 2006. Currently on leave, Wofford had most recently been working for investors of energy companies FirstEnergy and NRG Energy, both large electric utilities. In 2015 he represented debt holders for Relativity Media, the film production and distribution company behind hundreds of films, including “The Fast & The Furious” franchise. The company emerged from bankruptcy only to go bankrupt again in 2018. He also represented creditors in the 2009 bankruptcy of Charter Communications, which went on to erase $8 billion of debt and grew from the nation’s fourth to nation’s second largest cable provider. He says tracking down finances hidden by corporations prepares him to be attorney general. “I’ve seen every trick in the book,” he quips.
Corruption, regulation and jobs?
Wofford frames his campaign around economic revitalization, claiming that both corruption and aggressive prosecution of securities fraud have harmed the little guy by driving out jobs, industry and investment.
It’s unclear what businesses or jobs have left New York, in Wofford’s estimation, due to a negative business environment or overzealous use of the Martin Act. The state unemployment rate reached its lowest level since 2007. When asked by City Limits to name specific companies that had left New York State due to a harsh business environment, Wofford only named one, Alliance Bernstein, a money management company. That company announced last Spring that they would be moving 1,000 of its 3,450 jobs to Nashville, but would still maintain 250,000 square feet and the majority of its employees in NYC. This includes all of its private wealth management, although it’s unclear how many jobs this practice involves. (The securities industry has been shrinking in NYC as a total percentage of the city’s workforce, but by some analyst’s assessments, this is a good thing. Their profits have been growing steadily, however.)
On some economic issues, Wofford has taken a very local focus: He held a press conference calling for an investigation into the city’s Third Party Transfer program, a program that allows the city to seize neglected housing and transfer it to nonprofits but which, in at least a few recent cases, has led to foreclosures on properties behind on tax payments, most of them owned by Black people. And he complained in an interview with City Limits about a “housing authority that’s poisoning its own tenants here in NYC.”
Most of Wofford’s ideas for generating jobs involve going easier on big business and acting more aggressively against corrupt politicians, as he told City Limits :”The business community generally feels targeted because frankly a lot of the business community is targeted politically.” On his campaign website, he says “To unlock the greatness of our state, we need a government that spends money honestly, and wisely—and supports policies that make New York a place for entrepreneurs.”
To that end, he also says his higher scrutiny of deals like the Buffalo Billion deal that lead to Kaloyeros’ conviction would lead to a smarter distribution of these funds. “Like a lot of people from Buffalo, I thought a billion dollars to develop things in Buffalo would be a great idea,” he says, but was uncertain after $750 million in funds to build a Tesla Solar Plant were found to have been rigged to the developer, LPCMinelli.
“Were they doing it because there was a payoff or were they doing it because it was the right thing to do? We’ll never know, but it sure doesn’t look good. Think about where that three fourths of a billion dollars could have been used. That’s the shame of it,” he said.
What role, the AG?
Wofford’s claim that the AG can, without gubernatorial permission, crusade against corruption has led to a disagreement with his opponents less about policy and more about the foundations of the post.
On the state AG’s website, the description for the Public Integrity Bureau says that the office may go after corruption to “restore the public’s interest in honest government and the integrity of government officials at the state and local level.” But the public officers law and the General Municipal Law cited on the website do not empower the attorney general to do so independently, nor does the state constitution. While it is true that no law explicitly limits the office from pursuing corruption, legal experts agree the scope of the AG’s prosecutorial power is restricted to what has been enshrined in law. For this reason, all of the Democratic candidates in this year’s AG primary debated potential legal reforms to empower the attorney general in a permanent way to fight corruption.
“It is remarkable that a lawyer who is paid at least $4.35 million as a partner at one of the largest Wall Street law firms in the country does not know enough about governance and the statutes that define the power of the attorney general’s office,” Jack Sterne, a spokesperson for James told City Limits.
Lou Young, a former television reporter who is now campaign manager to Green Party candidate Michael Sussman, was blunt in his dismissal of Wofford’s claims.
“The Republican is bullshitting you. He had some assistant cut and paste the authorities off the state of the attorney general’s website,” he said. “Wofford is a bill collector, he works for credit card companies and banks. He’s a confident attorney but he has no experience in public law.”
Young said that the attorney general’s office spends most of its time defending state agencies and uses its remaining sliver of discretionary funds to fight on behalf of citizens, but that “they don’t do a goddamn thing unless there’s a headline in it,” echoing one of Wofford’s complaints.
Sussman is one of three third-party candidates vying for the AG spot, joined by Libertarian Christopher Blaise Garvey and Reform Party candidate Nancy Sliwa. Wofford has the Conservative line as well as the Republican slot and Democrat James is also the nominee of the Independence and Working Families parties.
Despite disagreements with Wofford, the Sussman campaign shares the view that James is too tied to Cuomo to adequately prosecute corruption.
“Tish James is saying nothing about it. I’ve been on the stage with her several times, she doesn’t speak about the issue, nor can she really speak about the issue because she courted and wanted the support of Mr. Cuomo,” Sussman told City Limits.
However, James has addressed corruption in several debates, and the permanent legislative power to prosecute corruption that Sussman calls for is identical to the fix James prescribes in her policy proposals.
When it comes to the specifics of what his work to end corruption would look like, Wofford also suggested that he would look at private contracts between known political donors and state agencies to root out pay to play deals, alluding to the Buffalo Billion scandal, which he says he took particularly personally as someone raised in Buffalo. The strategy is similar to the anti-corruption plan posted on James’ campaign website.
The ratio of Democratic voters in New York State to Republicans will likely carry James to victory, in a state with a newly energized left-wing and which hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since 2002. But Wofford’s polling with independents is inches away from James – just 38 to James’ 40 – in a poll with a 3.9 percent margin of error. It may be a sign that with a portion of the electorate, the blank slate that Wofford provides is preferable to the dysfunction he claims to rail against.
It is also possible that many voters feel as Green Party candidate Sussman does; when asked, Sussman said, “Both of these major party candidates can’t be talking about corruption, frankly in any credible way, nor are they talking about corruption in any credible or meaningful way.”