NEW YORK – Despite calls from leading Democrats to step aside, Gov. David Paterson said Thursday he won't drop his election bid amid a growing scandal surrounding accusations of domestic violence against a key aide.
The embattled governor said he will speak to key New York Democrats about his political future but for now he's continuing his campaign to be elected governor. Paterson rose to governor in 2008, when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal.
Paterson also said he will cooperate fully with a state attorney general's investigation into contact his administration had with a woman who accused aide David Johnson, her boyfriend at the time, of domestic violence. No criminal charges were brought after the Halloween 2009 confrontation at the woman's Bronx home.
"I'm not suspending my campaign, but I am talking to a number of elected officials around the state as I would fellow Democrats to hear their opinions," Paterson said before a gala of the group 100 Black Men at a Manhattan hotel.
Asked if he would withdraw if fellow Democrats asked him to, Paterson responded: "I am obviously listening to them. I've got an open mind about this thing. I want the Democrats to win in November."
Paterson's comments came after a day of developments surrounding Johnson and any role the administration and state police played after the Halloween confrontation.
Paterson's top criminal justice Cabinet member resigned over the burgeoning scandal, saying conduct by the state police was "distressing" for an administration that has devoted itself to reducing domestic violence.
Elected officials and other candidates for office clamored for Paterson to end his campaign — formally launched just days ago — as the turmoil mushroomed around Johnson. A police report detailed in The New York Times discusses a confrontation between Johnson and the woman over her Halloween costume.
The Times reported Wednesday on court papers showing a phone call between state police and the woman. Paterson's office acknowledges he talked to the woman but says she placed the call, and a spokesman for the governor denied anyone tried to keep the woman from pursuing a domestic-violence case.
Paterson's office has not made Johnson available for comment.
The state police said in a news release that they won't comment on any aspect of the case during the investigation by the office of Andrew Cuomo, the popular attorney general whom many would like to see run as the Democratic candidate for governor instead of Paterson.
The Paterson administration asked Cuomo's office to investigate the matter, and the attorney general's office said it would look into whether crimes or other wrongdoing were committed. The state police said Cuomo asked the agency not to open its own internal probe.
Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor, said Cuomo should tell New Yorkers if any of his staff gave the Times information for the Johnson story.
"If you do not disavow any connection to this story the same conflict of interest would be present and any findings of your investigation would be immediately called into question," Lazio said in a written statement.
Criminal Justice Services Commissioner Denise O'Donnell abruptly quit Thursday afternoon, saying state police Superintendent Harry Corbitt had assured her his agency was not involved in the confrontation involving Johnson.
Corbitt denies misleading O'Donnell. He said that he told her state police weren't involved in the investigation, not that they hadn't contacted the woman.
Paterson's office had no immediate comment about O'Donnell's resignation. Paterson has been resisting calls from fellow Democrats not to seek a full term, and some saw O'Donnell's departure as a sign the administration was tottering.
"That's a very serious blow," state Sen. Bill Perkins, a Democrat who represents Paterson's old state Senate district in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, said of O'Donnell's departure. "She has been loyal, so the Cabinet, so to so speak, is falling apart."
Paterson, the state's first black governor, faces a big test before his scheduled campaign announcement in Harlem, his home district, on Sunday. Black Democratic leaders, key supporters for any political campaign, are trying to schedule with Paterson a Saturday meeting that could force him to contend with whether to continue his underfunded shot at a full term, according to a Democratic adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Perkins is among top Democrats who want the governor to end his candidacy.
"What we are learning is unacceptable, and the viability of his candidacy is obviously crippling," Perkins told The Associated Press. "To the extent that he can govern, he can best govern without the campaign and by focusing on the needs of the community."
Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Democrat and longtime congressional member from Long Island, said it's time for friends to be straight with Paterson.
"I think it's become apparent that he should not seek election and should announce it soon," Israel said.
Rep. Nita Lowey, a Westchester Democrat, said that if "these very serious allegations" are true, "the governor should no longer be in office."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, considered the most powerful official in Albany, said he wants an investigation of the role of the governor and state police in the Johnson matter.
"That investigation must address at whose direction and with whose knowledge members of the governor's security detail were acting when they contacted the victim," Silver said.
O'Donnell said in a written statement that it doesn't matter to her what was said.
"The fact that the governor and members of the state police have acknowledged direct contact with a woman who had filed for an order of protection against a senior member of the governor's staff is a very serious matter," she said. "These actions are unacceptable regardless of their intent."
The behavior is "particularly distressing" for an administration that prides itself in combatting domestic violence, she said.
Johnson, 37, has worked for Paterson for more than a decade, beginning when Paterson was a state senator. Johnson began as an intern as part of Paterson's effort to help youths with arrest records stemming from the crack epidemic in Harlem at the time.
According to a police report, the woman in the confrontation with Johnson told police he was angry about her costume, choked her, tried to rip the clothing from her body and pushed her into a mirror.
New York City police returned to the home Nov. 4 as part of their domestic-violence prevention program. No other incidents were reported. The woman had no visible injuries and was not taken to a hospital. On Nov. 9, police served Johnson with an order of protection.
Court records identified the woman as Sherruna Booker, 40, with a home address in the Bronx. No telephone number was listed for her. Her lawyer declined repeated attempts to seek comment.
This week, Paterson suspended Johnson without pay.
Gormley reported from Albany. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York and Michael Virtanen and Michael Hill in Albany also contributed to this report.