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Report shows Cuomo’s sister coordinated with online supporters

Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a rally in March in Albany, N.Y.
Mike Groll
Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a rally in March in Albany, N.Y.

About two years ago, if you spent any time in the Albany-New York state politics Twitter bubble, you probably noticed a concerted effort to boost the embattled Andrew Cuomo online — with posts attacking his accusers and his successor as governor. As it turns out, those posts were anything but organic, according to a new report by “The New York Times.” In fact, Cuomo’s sister was coordinating with some of the Democrat’s supporters in a partnership that ended up in acrimony. Reporter Nicholas Fandos wrote the storyand spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.

So, before we talk about specifics, tell us who some of the players were in addition to the governor’s sister here.

When Andrew Cuomo began to face accusations of sexual harassment back in the spring of 2021, women all over the country, many of them older women started coming together online in Facebook groups and other organizations to defend him. Many of them were Democrats, and they were really won over by his handling, especially in the early days, of the COVID pandemic, and felt like he was not being treated fairly in the court of public opinion, by the media and others. And so, they decided to band together and become really active on social media. They had some real live rallies, they took out billboards, basically trying to push for due process. At first, the governor tried to push back on his critics and increasingly go after the people who were accusing him. So, I focused in this piece on one of the better organized groups here, which is called We Decide New York Incorporated. That cropped up during this time. Madeline Cuomo was not integral in founding it, but came to basically control it over something like an 18-month period.

What sorts of things did she instruct them to do or want them to do?

Yeah, so I just want to clarify, there's a lot of organic activity by women online that Madeline probably had nothing to do with. But during the period of time, which starts kind of in the summer before her brother resigned and continued until last fall, she was in pretty constant contact with the leaders of this group and some others, asking them to post certain things on social media, giving them feedback on work that they were generating themselves, coaching them on how to best support her brother. So, when he was considering running as a political independent in spring of 2021 trying to come back, she was organizing with the women to line up people to carry petitions to try and get him on the ballot in case he ran. She coached them basically how to go after his successor Kathy Hochul and helped connect them with one of Kathy Hochul’s opponents, Tom Suozzi, but a lot of it had to do with who going after the women who had accused the governor of sexual harassment. At the time they were working for him and what you just see in in these messages and emails and voice memos is a real steady drumbeat and pressure from Madeline Cuomo to go after Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, some of the better-known accusers with various lines of attack. One of the most kind of egregious, which I began my piece with, was her encouraging women to go after Charlotte Bennett by posting photographs that had been taken from Charlotte Bennett's Instagram account of her wearing skimpy clothing in a bar at a friend's birthday party, which turns out was a costume more or less, posting those images which would embarrass her and make her look less than a kind of sterling aide to the governor who didn't have pure intentions. She was pretty explicit in what she was trying to achieve. Those posts ended up online and some, you know, pretty derogatory comments towards Ms. Bennett. So, that that was the kind of thing that we saw over and over again.

One thing I had been wondering, having watched this play out here in Albany in real time was, just what was behind the vociferousness of the effort after the governor resigned? What can you tell us about that? Because this effort really spans the before and after of a very momentous change here in Albany?

Yeah, that's a great question. Some of the kind of most aggressive posting and harassing that I document happened after the governor left office. I think a lot of it has to do with reputation management, trying to basically clean up his image. I don't think that Cuomo himself has made any secret of the fact that he would like to get back into public life, and it's going to be very hard to do that unless he can change the story or clean himself up. And so, that seems to be what a lot of it was about. It picked up when he was considering running for office, as I said, in early 2022. He didn't end up doing that. It then picked up again quite a bit last fall when he was getting ready to come out with a new podcast series that he hosts and Madeline is pretty explicit with the women she's communicating with: Andrew is going to be coming out more publicly, taking this stance to embody us and we can't have these women, they need to know that they can't be attacking him at that point. Enough is enough, we can't take can't take flak from them. So basically, reading between the lines, she’s trying to throw a brushback pitch to scare these folks into not talking.

And that raises a very important question in your story. Cuomo’s spokesperson denies that the former governor was involved in coordinating these efforts, but often his sister was heard on tape in your report telling women who were posting on his behalf that she had just talked to him and this is what he wanted, and so on. So, to what extent does it appear that he was involved in this reputation management?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this is one of the most important aspects of this piece, which is like, was Madeline a total free agent or not? She repeatedly invokes her brother in texts and emails and voice memos. ‘I was just talking to Andrew and he thinks this. Andrew’s watching everything, he's so grateful for what you ladies are doing. Andrew is asking, can we do this or that?’ and gives a very clear impression that she is basically working, if not always at his explicit direction, kind of within the field of his vision and knowledge. When he was governor, he was obviously intensely focused on his public image and unusually involved in kind of PR and dealing with reporters and things like that. So, I think you take that at face value, it sure looks like he's involved. He obviously was trying to burnish his own image at this point, and tell his side of the story. But when I reached out for comment on this piece, both Andrew through a spokesman and Madeline said that she was acting on her own, did not communicate with him about these postings and when she invoked his name, it was nearly as a kind of, you know, attaboy or attagirl because she knew these women were putting a lot of time in not for her, but for her brother, and wanted them to get the idea that he appreciated it.

So eventually, the partnership fell apart and everyone ended up sort of upset with each other. What happened?

Yeah, it gets to be a bit tangled. I think a lot of things happened at once and basically the burden of this work became a greater strain on everybody involved. Madeline's demands for posts were becoming more explicit and some of the leaders were getting uncomfortable with how far they were going. Madeline was inserting herself much more directly in the kind of personnel disputes and makeup of the board of the group and throwing a lot of weight around in that regard. And then a lot of it has to do with this documentary film project that the group was trying to help finance to actually help Andrew Cuomo tell his side of the story. They felt they were getting all kinds of mixed signals from the Cuomos and they went ahead thought they had kind of a nod of approval and put in tons of time and money into the project and then couldn't seem to get an agreement for an interview and it's all a bit of a tangle, but they blamed Madeline among other people for that and considered suing her at one point. She got wind of it and then came around and made all kinds of counter accusations and it turned into a real acrimonious set of terminations that aled her and many of the women she'd been working with to turn in opposite directions.

I imagine it's kind of hard to quantify something like this. Is there any indication that the online posting army was successful in any way?

Gosh, this is a fascinating question. I don't know that I have a good way of answering it. Obviously, time has a way of taking some of the rough edges off of certain public figures. We see this all the time in politics and public life. I do think that clearly the Cuomos saw these women as valuable. Madeline spent as much time as she did, and Andrew, whether he knew better or not, publicly praised them repeatedly, because they were out there defending him when almost nobody else would. I think that there was, even if they weren't changing a lot of minds, there was something valuable about saying, maybe they were changing minds, I don't know, but there was something valuable in that saying, well, look, these women are looking at these accusations. They're serious people. They're older people, and they think we've been treated unfairly. So, what the broader effect that was, I don't know that we'll ever know. Obviously, he did resign and right now he is still out of office. We'll see if he does try and attempt to run again, if these women will play a part. I think the women that I profiled are unlikely to help Andrew Cuomo out. I mean, one of the more salient parts of this reporting process was seeing how a group that really dedicated almost nearly full-time jobs to helping Andrew Cuomo get started out and really believing in him ended up in a place where they felt like they themselves were kind of bullied by at least a member of the Cuomo family and led them to doubt a lot of the assumptions they made about Andrew’s innocence and other things like that.

So, just one more thing, Nick. It occurs to me, having read your story and now speaking with you, that in the timeframe that this went on, and your reporting, the influence of Twitter has really waned in its ability to kind of weigh in on New York state politics the way it did even just two summers ago, when Andrew Cuomo ended up resigning. I mean, the share price is down, it's called X, and posts about politics seem to get a lot less engagement than they once did. I wonder if you've thought about that at all?

Yeah, it's a great point. These groups often had other accounts on other social platforms. Twitter was where a lot of the currency was. I do think that's taken some wind out of their sails as it has others. I also just think more broadly that this is in some ways a story about a form of online radicalization. If not radicalization, that might be too strong a word, kind of an affiliation. This was a group of people scattered all across the country, stuck at home during the pandemic, who were united in a cause and formed unlikely alliances to defend someone. They went all in on it and they realized over time, and frankly, they stepped back out into the world and life got more complicated and he left office. Some of the people they were working with were not who they thought they were. They had differences in direction and opinion. Being on the internet full-time took a toll on them, and they decided to step away. There's just so many interesting components to this that are very different than the types of things we're used to talking about people being activated or clued in to a cause online. It's not usually governor of New York, but I think some of the themes are pretty similar.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.