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Politics and Government

NY AG's report finds Cuomo sexually harassed women, created toxic workplace; Cuomo remains defiant

James.jpg
Governor Andrew Cuomo's office

New York Attorney General Tish James on Tuesday released the findings of an investigation into Gov. Andrew Cuomo that concluded he violated multiple state and federal laws by sexually harassing multiple women, including current and former staffers.

The report also found that the governor fostered a toxic and hostile work environment.

Cuomo reacted defiantly to the report, saying he did nothing wrong, but admitting some of his actions might have been misconstrued.

James, along with her appointed investigators — former acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim and employment attorney Anne Clark — reviewed 74,000 pieces of evidence and interviewed 179 people. That included Cuomo and members of his current and former staff.

"These interviews and pieces of evidence reveal a deeply disturbing yet clear picture,” James said. “Gov. Cuomo sexually harassed current and former state employees in violation of both federal and state laws.

“The independent investigation found that Gov. Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, many of whom were young women, by engaging in unwanted groping, kisses, hugging, and by making inappropriate comments.”

The report includes testimony from 11 female accusers, including one referred to in the report as “Executive Assistant 1.” She has previously claimed that she was a victim of sexual assault by Cuomo and alleged several offensive interactions with him, including an incident at the Executive Mansion in November 2020. In that incident, she said Cuomo reached under her blouse and grabbed her breast.

In an account from another accuser, a female state trooper assigned to guard Cuomo said the governor touched her inappropriately on numerous occasions.

“In an elevator, while standing behind the trooper, he ran his finger from her neck, down her spine and said, ‘Hey, you,’” Clark said.

“Another time, she was standing, holding the door open for the governor. As he passed, he took his open hand and ran it across her stomach from her belly button to the hip where she keeps her gun. She told us that she felt completely violated.”

The trooper also stated that Cuomo often asked her inappropriate questions.

“She then tried to deflect the conversation by asking the governor what he was looking for in a girlfriend. He responded that he was looking for somebody who could handle pain.”

Her account was corroborated by several other state troopers who witnessed some of the incidents.

Kim said Cuomo and his aides created a toxic work culture, one that an alleged victim called “a kind of Twilight Zone atmosphere” where inappropriate acts by the governor were normalized.

“As one senior staffer stated bluntly — as the sexual harassment allegations became public in March of this year — in text exchanges with another (staff member) in the administration, ‘Hopefully when this is all done, people will realize the culture, even outside of the sexual harassment stuff, is not something you can get away with. You can’t berate and terrify people 24/7,’” Kim said.

The report also noted that Cuomo and his top aides illegally retaliated against one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan, by releasing some of her personnel records to reporters. Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, is singled out for not properly reporting sexual harassment incidents between the governor and former aide Charlotte Bennett.

James stopped short of making a criminal referral, and she did not call for the governor’s resignation, saying that decision is up to him.

James said the incident with Executive Assistant 1 was reported to the Albany Police Department.

Reaction in New York’s political world was swift, with leading elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, reiterating calls for Cuomo to resign. The most ominous is a statement by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, whose house is conducting an impeachment inquiry. Early on Tuesday, Heastie said that the conduct by Cuomo, as outlined in the report, would indicate someone who is not fit for office. Heastie said the report was referred to the Assembly Impeachment Inquiry Committee and that he would have more to say in the near future. The near future turned out to be just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, when Heastie released as statement saying Cuomo could no longer serve as governor.

"After our conference this afternoon to discuss the Attorney General's report concerning sexual harassment allegations against Governor Cuomo, it is abundantly clear to me that the Governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office," Heastie said. "Once we receive all relevant documents and evidence from the Attorney General, we will move expeditiously and look to conclude our impeachment investigation as quickly as possible."

President Joe Biden, who was holding a press conference Tuesday, was asked by a reporter if he believed Cuomo should resign. His answer was blunt.

"Yes," Biden said, who said in March that Cuomo should resign if the accusations against him proved to be true.

Cuomo, in a response to the AG's report, offered a mixture of denials and admissions, and said he won’t let the report distract him from continuing to do his job. And he said the facts are much different than what has been portrayed.

“I want you to know directly from me, that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” Cuomo said. “I’ve lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am.”

He said that while he does frequently hug and kiss people, he now realizes that there are generational and cultural differences that he did not perceive and will correct his behavior going forward. He apologized directly to former staffer Charlotte Bennett, who has accused him of grooming her for a sexual encounter and asking inappropriate questions about her surviving a sexual assault, saying he was only trying to help Bennett.

He said Bennett and her lawyer, Debra Katz, “drew inferences” and “ascribed motives” to his comments.

“Charlotte, I want you to know that I am truly and deeply sorry,” Cuomo said. “I brought my personal experience into the workplace, and I shouldn’t have done that.”

In a statement, Katz said that the findings corroborate her client’s claims that Cuomo “sexually harassed her during her employment as his executive assistant and his enablers protected him and covered it up.”

The governor said he’s hired an outside firm to conduct new comprehensive anti-sexual harassment training for him and his aides. He also took a shot, indirectly, at James, saying those seeking publicity discredit legitimate claims of sexual harassment. Cuomo said his private attorney has written a point-by-point response to James’ report, and he has posted that on his website.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares said that his office will be requesting information that James' office obtained and is also asking victims to contact his office.

State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, who represents Niagara and Orleans Counties, called the report "sobering" and was taken aback by the lack of accountability Cuomo displayed toward the report.

"The only thing that was missing, I mean, 74,000 pieces of documentation, over a hundred witnesses, 11 women, and yet the governor seemed to challenge the facts and the very basis of the report in his response," Ortt said. "No real ownership. Certainly no contrition. And he doesn't seem to be resigning."

"The Assembly Democrats should immediately move forward with impeachment proceedings based on this report," Ortt continued. "Our conference stands ready to come back immediately to deal with this."

As for a looming impeachment, the actions that trigger impeachment at the state level is different than at the federal level.

"Impeachment in the state of New York, is not the federal standard, high crimes and misdemeanors — it's abuse of power," said Assemblyman Phil Steck, a Democrat from the Capital Region, and a member of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. "In the Judiciary Committee we are investigation a variety of instances of abuse of power, of which sexual harassment is one."

At the conclusion of the news conference, James wrapped up the report's findings by saying, “These 11 women were in a hostile, toxic work environment. And we should believe women. And that what we have an obligation and a duty to do is to protect women in their workplace. And what this investigation revealed was a disturbing pattern of conduct by the governor of the great state of New York, and those who basically did not put in place any protocols and procedures to protect these young women, who believed in public service. I believe women.”