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There are 16.1 million reasons why citizens should believe state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is running for governor.

That's how many dollars he has in a rapidly growing campaign fund, which he adds to every day through an active fundraising effort.

All that money, and all that speculation over a possible run for the state's chief executive job, sets the stage for the appearance of a conflict of interest in any investigation involving Gov. David Paterson.

Mr. Cuomo's office is looking into whether the governor, members of his staff and State Police used their positions to persuade a woman not to bring charges against one of Mr. Paterson's aides in a domestic violence case. The outcome of the case could have significant ramifications on the governor, the attorney general, and the outcome of the governor's race.

To maintain the integrity of his office, his future candidacy and the governorship itself, Mr. Cuomo must recuse his office from cases involving Gov. Paterson, specifically the current domestic violence case.

Any action he takes, favorably or unfavorably, will be seen as politically motivated to give him an edge in the race for governor.

If, for instance, he comes down hard on the governor and his relationship with the aide, Mr. Cuomo could be seen as catering to a number of important voting constituencies, including women and advocates for domestic violence victims. He also could be seen as trying to weaken Gov. Paterson in the voters' eyes as a way distinguishing himself from the failures of his fellow Democrat's administration.

On the other hand, if he absolves Gov. Paterson of culpability in the domestic violence case, he could be seen as trying to mend fences with black voters, many of whom he alienated during his last campaign for governor against H. Carl McCall in 2002.

It doesn't matter that Mr. Cuomo has not actually announced his bid for governor yet. Frankly, it would be easier for Mr. Cuomo to justify stepping aside if he was already an announced candidate. The speculation of his candidacy alone taints the investigation, since people will continually question his motivations while the investigation is ongoing. And if he announces his candidacy after the investigation is concluded, people will wonder what his motivations were prior to the announcement.

It also doesn't matter that Gov. Paterson has taken himself out of the running for governor, and therefore avoided a Democratic primary battle with Mr. Cuomo. The conflict might be less evident, but it still exists because of how Mr. Cuomo's decision will be perceived by potential voting blocs.

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On a broader scale, the controversy over the Paterson investigation could overshadow, and potentially undermine, other investigations the attorney general's office has going on. That mean's he's not only contaminating his campaign, he's contaminating his office.

If you're looking for a reason for Mr. Cuomo to continue the investigation, there simply is none. Even if he attempts to be completely above-board and free of politics, someone will disagree with the outcome, and the investigation will forever be questioned.

The best action for Mr. Cuomo to take - for his own political benefit, for the integrity of his office and that of the governor - is for him to withdraw from the case and let the state Legislature appoint an independent prosecutor.

In politics, perception is reality.

And in this case, the reality is that there's no way to change the perception that Mr. Cuomo has something to gain by investigating a governor he may someday hope to replace.

Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney and citizen member Roger Guglielmo.

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