After the budget was done, and Governor Cuomo was basking in the accolades, Mr. Schneiderman began to assert himself. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake, he won a federal ruling that makes the Indian Point nuclear power plant’s relicensing contingent on safety and emergency response upgrades; he is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to study the effects of natural gas drilling; and he subpoenaed the state’s largest foreclosure law firm in an investigation of possible improprieties.
Then, in May, it was revealed that Mr. Schneiderman had requested information from top Wall Street firms about their mortgage securities operations in the years leading up to the financial crash. The move was Mr. Schneiderman’s first strike at the kind of investigation that had forged towering reputations for each of his two predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and Mr. Cuomo. The subpoenas indicated that Mr. Schneiderman wasn’t acceding to a negotiated settlement that 49 other attorneys general had been working toward, at least not yet.
“They were negotiating a settlement with the folks who basically blew up the economy,” Mr. Schneiderman said of his fellow attorneys general. “This was not like a volcano blowing up. This happened because the housing market peaked and the residential-backed security market peaked in 2004, and then these guys should have stopped selling this stuff, and they wouldn’t stop.”
If successful, the investigation could do what the Matt Taibbis and Robert Scheers of the world have long advocated, and what officials from President Obama on down had hoped to avoid: actually send Wall Street malefactors to prison.
It is hard to remember now, but at this point in their respective tenures, neither Mr. Spitzer nor Mr. Cuomo had embarked on the cases that made their careers and that solidified the New York attorney general’s office in the public’s mind as the place where societal wrongs got redressed. But there is already a sense that this inquiry, which puts Mr. Schneiderman at odds with the rest of the elected officials in the land, could be his landmark case.
Mr. Schneiderman presides over the A.G.’s office at a very different time than either of his predecessors. Mr. Spitzer’s era was marked by Enron and WorldCom, when it seemed as if there were no checks on corporate power, especially at the top of the ladder. During Mr. Cuomo’s tenure, it had become clear that Bush-era regulators had no interest in regulation.
Asked to characterize the current moment, Mr. Schneiderman joked about “these dark days of the Tea Party,” then described an era in which everyday people have lost faith that everybody plays by the same set of rules.
“The trust bank is empty,” he said. “What I see happening in America is we have growing disparities in wealth, but there is also growing inequality in our legal system. As a lawyer and as a prosecutor, that is something I have no tolerance for. It’s something that puts the whole enterprise of the United States at risk. People have to believe there is not one set of rules for the rich and powerful and another set for everyone else. And that is why we are taking a hard stance on issues related to people who have power.”
Staking his claim on the foreclosure crisis is not without risks. Former aides to Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Cuomo said that if Mr. Schneiderman can find a way to keep people in their homes, he will be hailed as a hero, but that his investigations may be too backward-looking at a time when the perils threatening the economy are still very much in the present.
“I think it’s an old story, and there are too many people involved in it already,” said one veteran of Mr. Cuomo’s office. “The key is to find one issue and get there before anybody else does.”
“I don’t think A.G.’s make their tenure by explaining rather than discovering things,” said a former staffer to Mr. Spitzer. “I don’t think there is anything there that is unknown by the public.”
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