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Federal prosecutor warns Cuomo over corruption probe

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July 28, 2014: Gov. Andrew Cuomo responds to a question during a press conference at the University of Buffalo. (AP)

The top federal prosecutor in Manhattan is threatening to widen an investigation into New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's handling of an anti-corruption commission, as the Democratic governor lawyers up in the face of what could be a politically ill-timed probe. 

Cuomo is considered a potential Democratic contender for the 2016 presidential race. But his administration is facing questions about whether it meddled with an anti-corruption commission when a top aide, Larry Schwartz, urged commissioners not to investigate entities with links to Cuomo. 

Cuomo abruptly shut down the commission this spring. 

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara initially launched an investigation in April over the shutdown, criticizing the panel's demise as premature. 

But on Thursday, The New York Times reported that Bharara has threatened to investigate Cuomo for obstruction of justice or witness tampering for allegedly asking members of the commissioners to speak out about their work on the panel. 

The newspaper reported that Bharara wrote to the commission's attorney on Wednesday saying his office will investigate any attempts to "influence or tamper" with the recollection of commission members, "as we must consider whether such actions constitute obstruction of justice or tampering with witnesses that violate federal law." 

Cuomo acknowledged in a statement Thursday that his office had discussions with "relevant parties" about his concerns regarding recent news reports that Schwartz pressured the commission not to investigate entities with ties to Cuomo. 

A criminal defense attorney, Elkan Abramowitz, also told The Associated Press he was hired some time ago to represent the governor's executive chamber as a whole, though not Cuomo or another specific person. 

The prosecutor's warning marks the sharpest exchange yet in the deepening controversy over Cuomo's handling of the 25-member Moreland commission, which the governor created last year to root out corruption. 

The idea that the governor disbanded his own anti-corruption panel to prevent investigations of himself is politically problematic as well. A former New York attorney general, Cuomo has been governor for three-and-a-half years -- he's up for reelection, and has been mulling a potential 2016 White House bid. 

The governor tried to explain in a 13-page letter to The New York Times that in his view, people who effectively worked for him could not credibly investigate him. 

"A commission appointed by, and staffed by the executive, cannot investigate the executive. It's a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test," the letter said. 

On Monday, five commissioners spoke out to defend the panel's work and independence, accounts that backed up Cuomo's assertions that his office did not interfere. Cuomo has pointed to the statements as evidence that there was no interference, specifically one from Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, the commission's co-chairman, who wrote "nobody `interfered' with me or my co-chairs." 

"He said he made all the decisions and they made them independently. Period. So, that's that," Cuomo said Wednesday. 

Richard Briffault, a commission member and Columbia Law School professor, said Thursday he was never approached on Cuomo's behalf to speak in defense of the commission. His documents and electronic records have been subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney's office, but no one from Bharara's office has asked to talk with him, he said. 

Abramowitz, whose expertise is white-collar criminal defense, was retained by Cuomo's office before Bharara's recent letter, though he would not say when. 

Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.