In 2007, a magazine article tried to illuminate the pecking order among the staff of New York’s new attorney general, Andrew Cuomo. Mr. Cuomo was, of course, first, followed by Steven Cohen, his chief of staff. In third, according to the magazine, was the “special assistant and deputy counsel,” an ambitious recruit from the Southern District named Benjamin Lawsky.
Inside the office, the ranking was treated like a joke, as such lists inevitably are. To honor Mr. Lawsky’s standing, a few of his colleagues bought a copy of I Am Third, the autobiography of former Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, blew up the cover, and superimposed Mr. Lawsky’s face on it.
But just because no one outside Mr. Cuomo’s inner circle actually knows exactly what Mr. Lawsky does—which is often the case with Cuomo aides, who are prized for their loyalty, competence and willingness to deflect all positive attention to the boss—it’s not wrong to suggest he occupies a special place in the governor’s firmament. His official titles were, respectively, “special assistant” and “chief of staff.” What that meant, in practice, was that whenever something had to get done, and Mr. Cuomo didn’t have the time, inclination or ability to handle it himself, Mr. Lawsky was entrusted to take care of it.
“To the extent there were specific cases which the governor wanted to handle directly or wanted to ensure day-to-day oversight at the highest level, the majority of the time it was Ben’s role to be the point person,” said Mr. Cohen. “He seems to me to be somebody whose legal guidance and his sense about government are so right on that the governor trusts him implicitly with, whether it’s the hot project of the day or something that needs to be delegated and paid attention to,” said Jennifer Cunningham, the powerful Democratic and labor operative and longtime Cuomo confidante. “I think often those are the projects that Ben was asked to head up, but I think he’s also fully in the thick of things in terms of all the other inner circle goings-on.”
Mr. Lawsky’s wide-ranging brief is a reflection of the skill-set yielded by his prior experience with politics, policy and the press, and his potential to maximize the positive attention that would redound to a reticent Mr. Cuomo’s benefit. It is also a reflection of Mr. Lawsky’s sharing some attributes with Mr. Cuomo himself, namely a ferocious work ethic, a talent for public relations management and, significantly, a willingness to advance the cause, sometimes at the cost of relationships with colleagues and rivals.
And, while other top deputies have either slipped away to private practice (Mr. Cohen left last week) or continued in roughly their same role for the new governor, Mr. Lawsky has stayed, and risen.
Last month, he was unanimously confirmed as the first superintendent of the state’s new Department of Financial Services, a sprawling fiefdom that regulates the state’s insurance and banking industries, and one that will require Mr. Lawsky to transition from his decade as an aggressive prosecutor to being a more business-friendly regulator, capable of stoking the state’s economic engines.
In his new corner office on the 6th floor, overlooking the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, Mr. Lawsky, 41, recalled first meeting Mr. Cuomo, on Dec. 6, 2006—memorable for its being his future boss’s birthday. The attorney general-elect was turning 49 and was plotting his own political resurrection, following a disastrous 2002 campaign that many had expected would end his political career. Mr. Cuomo, a graduate of Albany Law School who had only briefly practiced, was recruiting a team of prestigious former prosecutors who he hoped could make the office speak for itself.
“It’s funny, the thing I remember most about the interview, he basically wanted to know what I was passionate about,” Mr. Lawsky recalled last month. “And I remember speaking about that, and then he sort of told me what he was passionate about. That was sort of the interview.”
Mr. Lawsky recalled talking about the good and bad of government: his grandparents, who had immigrated from Nazi Germany to an apartment on 192nd Street after his grandmother’s father had been killed at Auschwitz; his parents, in turn, had made good through public schools, graduating from Bronx Science and C.C.N.Y. His father was in the U.S. Public Health Service, and Mr. Lawsky and a twin sister were born on a Navy base in San Diego before the family moved to Pittsburgh, where Mr. Lawsky grew up waiting tables and selling funnel cakes out of a food cart. As a high school point guard, he was recruited by several small schools but chose to attend Columbia, where he played briefly as a walk-on before taking up long-distance running. (Colleagues in the attorney general’s office recall an inexplicable pile of worn-out running shoes stashed behind Mr. Lawsky’s desk.) He wanted to study architecture, but, faced with drawing cubes, switched to art history. He became interested in the law when a controversial exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in 1989 sparked a national conversation about art and the First Amendment. He graduated cum laude and enrolled in Columbia Law.
In the early days of the office, Mr. Cuomo was fond of telling his new hires that he didn’t know any of them, and that he didn’t care about their party affiliation, or whether they had even voted for him. (“In the primary or the general?” joked Eric Corngold, the executive deputy attorney general for economic justice.)
Mr. Lawsky’s own politics had been all over the place. After Columbia, he clerked for federal judges Carol Bagley Amon and Dennis Jacobs, both Republicans, before moving on to Washington to work in the Justice Department of Janet Reno, as a nonpolitical attorney in the civil division.
In 1999, the newly minted senator, Charles Schumer, who had distinguished himself as a particularly liberal Democrat in the House, hired Mr. Lawsky to serve as his counsel in Washington. “From day one he did a great job and it was clear he had all the tools to be very successful,” said Mr. Schumer, through a spokesperson.
Mr. Lawsky also had the skill set Mr. Schumer especially prized, and one that would later set him apart in Mr. Cuomo’s office. “It was clear early on that Ben understood the nexus between policy, press and politics incredibly well, and that led to an almost endless flow of ideas for new legislation, op-eds and events,” said Bradley Tusk, who was Mr. Schumer’s press secretary in New York at the time.
In Mr. Cuomo’s office, the Schumer model was turned on its head. Rather than feed a hungry press corps with a steady stream of attention-grabbing press conferences, the attorney general effectively went into hiding, refusing to sit for profiles or comment on the political news of the day, emerging only to trumpet the biggest, most visible cases. The press releases were designed, quite literally, to speak for themselves.
“Let the ball do the talking,” as Mr. Cuomo frequently told his staff. To find lawyers who could sufficiently move the ball, Mr. Cuomo had turned to the Southern District, the stocking pool for ambitious young attorneys who would come with pre-existing experience in moving high-profile, public-interest cases. The core curriculum consisted of a year in general crimes and a year in narcotics, followed by a turn prosecuting terrorists, or mobsters, or public officials. Mr. Lawsky joined the district office in 2001 and still keeps a plaque with a prosecutor’s creed on the wall of his sparsely decorated office.
A year later, he married Jessica Roth, a public-interest attorney who would later join the Southern District, and the daughter of Paul Roth, a founding partner at Schulte, Roth & Zabel and the self-proclaimed “dean of the hedge fund bar.” After his first two years, Mr. Lawsky chose the organized crime unit, where he worked on a sprawling prosecution of the Colombo crime family with Preet Bharara, who would later take Mr. Lawsky’s job as Mr. Schumer’s counsel before being appointed to head the Southern District.
“He was somebody people wanted to work with, which is probably the best compliment you can pay someone working at the U.S. attorney’s office,” said Neil Barofsky, who worked with Mr. Lawsky after he moved to the securities fraud unit.
In one of his bigger cases, Mr. Lawsky convinced a former Goldman analyst to turn state’s witness, and reveal an elaborate insider trading scheme that infiltrated a printing factory to steal advance copies of Businessweek, took tips from a Merrill Lynch analyst, and culminated in a lucrative trade before a planned takeover of Reebok became public. Insider trading was still relatively unchecked, and the office was making a concerted push to send a message. Fortune magazine ran a 4,000-word feature on the Reebok case. For Mr. Lawsky, the lessons from Mr. Schumer’s office seemed to have stuck.