Image: Cuomo
Mike Groll  /  AP
In this Dec. 11, 2008 file photo, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo speaks in Albany, N.Y.
updated 3/18/2009 5:16:59 PM ET 2009-03-18T21:16:59

If anyone emerges from the AIG bonus debacle looking good, it could be New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who has successfully strong-armed the company for details on the millions paid to dozens of executives.

The Democrat's hard-charging ways have many asking why Washington bureaucrats haven't been as aggressive in pursuing the insurance giant, under scrutiny for awarding $165 million in executive bonuses after accepting billions in taxpayer bailout money.

Public outrage has focused in part on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, but Cuomo said Wednesday that there's plenty of blame to go around.

"To point the finger, you need two hands," Cuomo told The Associated Press. "I think it was a bad decision by all who were involved."

Perceived missteps and inaction have Americans scared by and angry at their government, said Doug Muzzio, a politics professor at Baruch College.

"Your protectors have not done their job," he said. The public is "afraid that these people don't know what they're doing, and they're throwing around hundreds of billions of dollars."

Cuomo threatened subpoenas
Into the mix stepped Cuomo, the 51-year-old son of a former governor who has already taken one unsuccessful shot at his father's old job and is widely believed to be readying for another run in 2010. While Obama expressed outrage and Congress held a hearing, Cuomo threatened AIG with subpoenas unless they turned over records related to the bonuses.

"It's no surprise that Attorney General Cuomo is getting involved," said Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican from Missouri who has sharply criticized the Obama administration for what he said is lax oversight of the federal bailout. "The real surprise is that Secretary Geithner failed to do his job."

Cuomo can use an obscure 1921 law called the Martin Act to wield criminal and civil enforcement power over Wall Street. Put on the books to curb fraudulent investment advice, the act lets New York's attorney general get convictions without proving criminal intent and gives him broad powers to subpoena documents and question witnesses.

AIG on Wednesday proposed voluntarily giving back half of the bonuses, but Cuomo said it wasn't enough.

"If AIG has nothing to hide and is not embarrassed about these payments, they should turn over the list now," he said in a written statement.

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"They refuse to give me the list of names (of those receiving bonuses) and we're going to go to court if we don't get it," Cuomo told the AP.

There are shades of his predecessor's hard-line tactics, which could position Cuomo as a white knight in these dark times. Former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was hailed as the "Sheriff of Wall Street" for taking on gigantic firms ahead of any action by federal regulators. That reputation helped get him elected governor.

"(Cuomo's) taking them on in a way that nobody else is, and he's taking them on in a way that it's not simply a publicity activity," Muzzio said. "He's going to get results, and that's symptomatic of Spitzer. Once they do it, they do it well and they get their guy in the end."

Video: AIG CEO faces lawmakers over bonuses Cuomo has already grabbed headlines with his investigations into national issues such as student loan officers, Medicaid fraud, online predators and players in the subprime mortgage industry implosion.

But, while both attorneys general induced a sweaty-palm effect on powerful executives, Cuomo has a different approach, focusing on reform and creating incentives to force the subjects of his investigations to change their ways.

'How to make it better'
Spitzer was a self-proclaimed steamroller who unabashedly took on Wall Street and cleaned out firms from the top down. Nearly everyone he pointed the finger at fell. Spitzer coasted to the governor's mansion in 2006, only to resign in disgrace in March 2007 amid a prostitution scandal.

"I try to focus on how to make it better," Cuomo said. "Let's figure out what happened, and let's fix it."

Asked about the distinction between himself and his predecessor, Cuomo said: "Different styles, different priorities."

Cuomo thought the latest mess was fixed in October, when he sat down with Edward M. Liddy, chairman and chief executive of AIG, and persuaded him not to push through executive bonuses. Liddy himself said Cuomo was the key in holding back bonus money back then.

"In October they stopped the bonus pool; here they went ahead," Cuomo said, adding that he was surprised by the latest revelation of bonuses.

Cuomo is no stranger to New York's guns-or-knives politics. He earned his stripes working for liberal icon Mario Cuomo — his father and New York's governor for 12 years.

In the 1990s, he headed President Bill Clinton's Department of Housing and Urban Development. He married Kerry Kennedy, daughter of slain presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.

The union of the two political families was dubbed "Cuomolot" and appeared to set a strong foundation for Cuomo's rise through the Democratic Party. It ended in a messy divorce that played out in New York's tough tabloid environment.

Cuomo demurs when asked about political aspirations, saying he loves his current job. "I'm doing everything I can do to help," he said. "To the extent that we've been effective — that's what I'm supposed to do."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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