Meet the sheriff who wants to put Andrew Cuomo behind bars

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple is viewed through a video camera as he speaks to reporters in Voorheesville, NY, on Oct 29, 2021. Apple is known among some fellow Democrats as the “Teflon sheriff” for his ability to persevere, even thrive, through trouble that might tarnish less adept politicians. (Patrick Dodson/The New York Times)
A decade ago, in the midst of what would become a successful campaign to become county sheriff, a potentially devastating recording emerged.

“I know exactly how to manipulate the law and I’ve gotten pretty good at doing it,” Craig Apple, then an undersheriff of Albany County, New York, was recorded saying to a group of county investigators.

His words appeared to have little effect on voters: Apple was elected sheriff, and his tenure and popularity have led him to run unopposed in every election since.

But Apple now finds himself under far more scrutiny. In October, the sheriff filed a criminal complaint against former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, charging him with a misdemeanor sex crime typically associated with accusations of unwanted sexual advances in public places — doing so without the involvement of the county district attorney’s office.

Cuomo and his associates have accused the sheriff of harbouring old grudges against Cuomo, dismissing the law enforcement official as a “cowboy sheriff.” They have resurfaced the old recording as a way to try to impugn Apple’s integrity and cast doubt on his decision to charge the former governor.

They also suggest the sheriff had coordinated the timing of the complaint with state Attorney General Letitia James, who announced her candidacy for governor a day after the charge became public. No evidence has emerged of any coordination, but Rita Glavin, Cuomo’s attorney, said the timing “should give all of us pause that the heavy hand of politics is behind this decision.”

Other attacks have followed. Since August, when the sheriff disclosed he was investigating an accusation that Cuomo groped an aide’s breast in the Executive Mansion, the sheriff’s office had received anonymous threats and hate mail targeting him and his family, which the sheriff presumes come from Cuomo supporters.

“This is how this team plays,” Apple said, referring to the former governor. “They like to bully everybody. But again, put yourself in my position. Do you want me to pick and choose my complainants or victims?”

Apple, 54, runs a department of roughly 700 deputies, correction officers, dispatchers, fire investigators and medical responders.

Raised in Bethlehem, a town just south of Albany, Apple joined the department in 1987, just two years out of high school. He has been a near-constant presence in the local press ever since — regaling reporters with tales of high-speed chases, a prolific jewel thief, miscreant teenagers, and even the torture of a snapping turtle.

Tall, rugged and known for his love of cigars, the sheriff also enjoys widespread community support for his many attention-grabbing efforts in matters slightly peripheral to his work.

Matthew Miller, a Democratic county legislator and high school biology teacher in Selkirk, not far from where Apple grew up, recalled how the sheriff responded to the 2014 strangulation death of 5-year-old Kenneth White by a teenage cousin in their home in Knox, New York, part of the Hilltowns community in rural northwestern Albany County.

The sheriff showed up quickly, organized a vigil, and befriended the boy’s two surviving sisters, who were placed in the care of Child Protective Services. On the spring day in 2019 when a new family adopted the girls, he gave them a ride from family court in a squad car with flashing lights and a siren.

“I would say even Andrew Cuomo when he was on top of his game would find it difficult to discredit our sheriff,” Miller said. “He has a reservoir of goodwill.”

The sheriff’s jurisdiction covers roughly 540 square miles, overlapping local police departments in cities like Albany, Bethlehem and Cohoes. His office also runs the county jail, where allegations of torture were investigated after New York City banned solitary confinement for young prisoners, and then began transferring young inmates to Albany, where there were no such restrictions.

But the attention paid to that controversy pales in comparison to the scrutiny Apple has received since charging Cuomo with forcible touching, a misdemeanor sex crime that is punishable by up to a year in prison but often results in much shorter sentences.

The complaint is based on the account of Brittany Commisso, a former executive assistant to Cuomo. She accused Cuomo of reaching under her blouse to grope her breast while they were alone in the Executive Mansion late last year. Commisso was one of the dozen or so women whose accusations of sexual harassment against Cuomo formed the basis of a state attorney general’s report that eventually led to his resignation in August.

Commisso filed a complaint against Cuomo with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office in August. A subsequent investigation led to the criminal charge.

While the sheriff’s office is responsible for investigating a wide variety of crimes across Albany County, few are sexual offenses. In 2018, for instance, the Albany Police Department made 17 arrests with a sex crime as the top charge. The sheriff’s department handled six.

But Commisso’s attorney went to the sheriff to file the complaint because of concerns that the Albany Police Department would not want to handle a politically explosive investigation into Cuomo, according to a person familiar with the case.

Apple said his office had received help from the state attorney general’s office and outside lawyers hired by the State Assembly, which conducted a separate investigation of sexual harassment claims against Cuomo. “The case is a very solid case,” the sheriff said shortly after Cuomo was charged.

Yet his handling of the Cuomo complaint has left him vulnerable to criticism from the Cuomo camp and, more importantly, from Albany District Attorney David Soares, who has yet to commit to prosecuting the case.

Soares said Apple has engaged in “troubling” investigative methods and hidden potentially “exculpatory” evidence in the Cuomo case.

The two law enforcement officials cannot even agree on the documents filed: Soares said in a letter to the court that a critical section of Commisso’s statement was missing. The sheriff disagreed, saying his investigator submitted the necessary paperwork in full not once but twice, after the first copy disappeared.

Apple said he and Soares initially worked together, but they decided to conduct parallel investigations to avoid finger-pointing and leaks.

The sheriff denied speculation that he submitted the criminal complaint without the district attorney’s coordination in a bid to force Soares into prosecuting the case.

“Listen, he’s the district attorney, he can do whatever he needs to do on this case,” Apple said. “I mean, it’s totally up to him. It’s his prerogative. But I wouldn’t say that I boxed him in. I think that’s unfair.”

Soares requested and was granted a delay in Cuomo’s arraignment, which has been pushed to January.

Cuomo has also sought to discredit the sheriff’s investigation by trying to link it to James. Not only did she announce her campaign the day after the criminal complaint against Cuomo became public — she also had recently visited the county, distributing millions of dollars in aid to local governments and posing for photos with local functionaries, including Apple.

James’ “timing kind of was poor,” the sheriff said. “I mean, she’s the attorney general. Everybody took that picture. And they just naturally assume that, you know, we’re in cahoots to, you know, to pull some political scam. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

No matter how the Cuomo case turns out, it seems that the sheriff’s standing in his community will not suffer: He is known among some fellow Democrats as the “Teflon sheriff” for his ability to persevere, even thrive, through trouble that might tarnish less adept politicians.

Part of that ability, many people said, can be traced to the sheriff’s frequent and conspicuous acts of apparent kindness.

He has established a progressive record not often associated with a county sheriff. He turned a little-used wing of the jail into dormitory-style housing for homeless individuals and he implemented medically assisted treatment for inmates with opioid addictions.

His office began providing rapid COVID-19 tests and vaccines, a move Apple said was made possible by the “strong support of the governor’s chamber.”

The sheriff galvanised the county and made statewide headlines in 2018, when 300 or so migrants swept up in raids at the southern border were brought to the Albany County jail. The sheriff described their confusion, filthy belongings and tears. Then, he enlisted Albany Law School’s immigration law clinic to set up shop at the jail and recruit translators.

In 2019, he took up the plight of Kinimo Ngoran, a cook at a downtown Albany homeless shelter who was arrested on immigration violations, despite ongoing efforts to gain citizenship.

Apple twice tweeted at President Donald Trump to call for Ngoran’s release, even including his phone number. The sheriff attended both of Ngoran’s hearings, strategically seated in the front row in dress uniform. He walked out of the courthouse with the freed Ngoran.

John McDonald, a Democratic assemblyman whose district includes parts of Albany County, said that for anyone to suggest that Apple had charged Cuomo “because he needs political support for next year’s election, it’s laughable.”

“Craig Apple will be sheriff for as long as he wants to be sheriff,” he said.

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