September 24, 2018

The Leader

Keith Wofford is a 49-year-old attorney based in New York City. A native of Buffalo, Wofford is a co-managing partner of the Ropes & Gray law firm office in New York City, which retains nearly 300 attorneys.

Wofford is the Republican nominee for New York Attorney General and has campaigned on the premise of going after corruption in Albany.

He will face Democrat Letitia James in November’s general election.

The Leader sat down with Wofford for five questions regarding why he chose to run and his views on corruption in New York State government.

Tell me a little about your background and why you decided to run?

Look, I’ve had a great life and it’s time to give more back. The state is a spot where there’s an opportunity to really help.

We’ve had a series of attorney generals who have really not helped where the citizens and taxpayers need to be in this state.

I grew up in Buffalo New York, working class. My dad worked at the Chevy plant, and my mom just worked at department stores and stayed with me and my brother. And my father worked hard. The reason he worked so hard for 32 years at the plant was he wanted life to be better for me and my brother.

My parents were able to achieve that because they valued hard work and education, and because they had a system in the private sector in government that supported that. What’s happened is that has weathered and eroded and to a great degree gone away where people today, middle class, working class people, can’t rely upon that same sort of benefit.

We’ve got to start having some public officials who get back toward that ideal, and the attorney general is one place to start solving that problem.

You’ve said before that New York’s attorney general’s office is hostile to business. What do you mean by that and how you would you address this if you were elected?

It’s absolutely true that the office is hostile to business. In fact, the entire state government in many ways is hostile to business, but the AG is the most glaring example.

What we have to do first of all, is we have to have a government that stops taking money from the people and doing the wrong things with it. There’s just no confidence among the taxpayers and no confidence in the business community that we’re going to be able to get our arms around and stop this corruption. And so we got to stop the corruption and you have to have an independent AG to do it. N

o one would have dreamed when I was kid that you would have a parade of government officials, one after another after another, going to jail like we do today. It’s unprecedented, and that parade of officials going to jail is primarily because of federal prosecutions – it’s not even the state getting its own house in order.

So it shows you how much we still need to do. So the number one thing we have to do to be more business friendly is we have to cut out the corruption.

The number two thing we need to do is we have to have a balanced enforcement of laws and regulations. The government’s just too overbearing.

We’ve had AG’s who’ve taken relatively loosely worded statutes like the Martin Act, and used it to beat businesses over the head.

Basically just put them in a room, twist their arms, and make them pay over big settlements so they can get a headline and move up.

That needs to stop, because every business sees when that’s happening, and they don’t want to put up with it. So what they do is they leave outright, or they quietly reduce their investments here, so all they have left is a nameplate but all the jobs are gone.

And then ultimately, 10-20 years later someone flips the lights off. We’ve got to turn that around, we’ve got to stop it. The third thing the attorney general can do is be more affirmatively friendly to small business.

You’ve made corruption a major message in your campaign. How far would you go if you were elected to address and root out corruption in Albany?

We have to investigate it across the board, state and local. The big thing you can do is to send a signal that someone is looking, because the signal in recent years has been that people aren’t looking. And we see the results of that.

We’ve got to show people that the AG is on the side of the people and not on the side of the corrupt politicians. The politicians seem to have every other priority than cleaning up their own mess, and that’s what people are frustrated about.

You see yourself as the outsider candidate in this race. How would your experience in the private sector translate to success in the attorney general’s office?

Precisely because you need someone that’s an outsider. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Buffalo, and that’s about as far from an insider as you can be.

And even going to college and law school and being in a private firm, I’ve kept that outsider mentality. My priority has always been to do the best job, not to be everybody’s best buddy. If you have that mentality, and are focused on results, then the people have a chance to win.

The people who contact my firm and hire us, hire us because they believe we’re the best. They’re hiring us because they have billions of dollars at stake. Wouldn’t it be nice if the taxpayers had someone like that who would get results when the taxpayers’ billions are at stake?

That’s what I want to do, bring that expertise. Not just suing people, but yes that’s a part of it, but also looking at these contracts the state is doing the way I’ve looked at other billion dollar contracts and say “what’s wrong with this? How can we make it better? How can we keep the state from doing lousy deals in the first place?”

Your opponent Letitia James has campaigned on fighting the Trump administration’s agenda and keeping an eye on Wall Street. Do you intend to do the same or do you have a different philosophy in regards to how the powers of the AG’s office should be wielded?

I have a different approach because I have a different view of what the people of this state need and deserve.

The cost of corruption are huge, and it costs taxpayers everyday in this state when projects don’t get done, when projects cost too much, when projects take too long, or a bridge isn’t finished, or a school doesn’t get built, or things cost two, five, ten times what they should cost. Those things cost us a fortune.

It also costs us when we do projects we shouldn’t be doing. When someone is induced to do a project because of a bribe or political contribution, which is what we’ve been seeing in these trials, guess what? The people don’t even know why we’re doing that project in the first place.

Would we have used that money that way at all if there wasn’t a contribution or a bribe or whatever attached to it? So the cost of corruption to everyday citizens in this state are huge. And the biggest cost to everyday citizens is when we lose the confidence of the business community and drive business and jobs out. Because once those jobs and those tax dollars leave they never come back.

We’ve learned this. Once those tax dollars are gone, it’s not just for one year. It’s forever. And you and I make up the difference in the taxes we have to pay when those companies leave. So that cost of corruption is huge, and we’ve got to put a stop to it.

That’s the most important thing for the citizens and taxpayers in this state. Now to do that, to have someone who’s going to get that under control, you have to have someone who’s independent – who’s not part of the system, who has both the experience to do it, and an outsider mentality to do it.

And you’re not going to get that from someone who’s a career politician, or someone who’s handpicked by the governor – as my opponent is – you’re not going to get that from someone for whom the governor raised money. So the big difference in this race is the independence between the two candidates. Because without that independence, it’s just another politician every four years, like some kind of celestial body, coming in here like clockwork and saying “I’m going to get rid of corruption.” If you do that same thing again, elect another career politician, then yet again it isn’t going to happen.