New York attorney general wants power to bypass Trump pardons

NEW YORK, April 18 (Reuters) - New York's attorney general on Wednesday asked Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators to give him and other local prosecutors power to bring criminal charges against people pardoned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

In a letter, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman urged Cuomo and legislative leaders to close a loophole in New York's double jeopardy law shielding recipients of presidential pardons from state prosecution.

A change could make it more difficult for Trump aides and others who might be pardoned to escape criminal prosecution, even if special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election were curbed or shut down.

The president has no constitutional power to pardon state crimes, but Schneiderman said the current law means defendants pardoned for serious federal crimes could be freed from "all accountability" under state criminal law.

Schneiderman, a Democrat in his eighth year as attorney general, has made his office a central figure in blue state challenges to Trump, tangling with the Republican president on such matters as consumer finance, the environment, immigration and the 2020 census.

The White House had no immediate comment.

Cuomo, a Democrat, is reviewing Schneiderman's proposal, and "believes that the federal legal system should not provide a basis for any wrong doers to escape justice," press secretary Dani Lever said in a statement.

Democratic State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said "we will take a close look" at the "serious" issue, and State Senator Todd Kaminsky, also a Democrat, tweeted a plan to introduce a bill closing the loophole.

It is unclear if a revised law can make it through the state senate, which is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. The office of Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Double jeopardy laws prevent people from being tried twice for the same crime.

"By closing New York's double jeopardy loophole, lawmakers can ensure that no one accused of breaking New York's laws will escape accountability merely because of a strategically-timed presidential pardon," Schneiderman said in a statement.

Jed Shugerman, a Fordham University law professor, said Schneiderman's "balanced" proposal both protects people from "repeated harassment" by a single group of prosecutors, and also "protects against pardons being used to obstruct justice."

He said its adoption would bring New York law in line with laws of several other U.S. states.

Schneiderman said more than 20 states provide defendants only the minimum required protection against double jeopardy.

Some onetime Trump aides have pleaded guilty in Mueller's probe, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign adviser Rick Gates.

Trump has called the probe a witch hunt. His personal lawyer Michael Cohen faces a separate criminal investigation that arose from it.

Last week, Trump pardoned Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a onetime chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, over his role in the unmasking of CIA agent Valerie Plame. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Jan Wolfe in New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown)