Cuomo Sexually Harassed Multiple Women; Violated State, Federal Laws: NY AG

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Investigators found that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women in a pattern of behavior that created a toxic workplace, enabling the harassment to occur, Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday

One of the lead investigators, Anne Clark, said Cuomo engaged in sex-based harassment through his comments and actions that violated state law. Clark also said the executive chamber failed to follow its own harassment policies and procedures, including in the case of Charlotte Bennett, who accused the governor of inappropriate conduct earlier this year.  

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The sexually harassing behavior was not limited just to Cuomo’s own staff, but also extended to other state employees, the report said. It concluded that the culture in the governor’s office was one of “fear and intimidation” that normalized frequent flirtations and gender-based comments, contributing to the governor’s office’s inadequate response to the allegations.

“We find that the [governor] on numerous occasions engaged in conduct that constitutes unlawful sex-based harassment,” said Joon Kim, one of the lead investigators. “Specifically, we find the governor sexually harassed a number of current and former U.S. state employees.”

Cuomo strongly denied the allegations in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, saying he never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.

He said he routinely touches people and tries to keep people at ease, and that he recognizes that there may be generational or cultural differences in how those actions are interpreted. 

“I do kiss people on the cheek. I do kiss people on the hand. I do embrace people,” Cuomo said. “I do banter with people. I do tell jokes, some are better than others. I am the same person in public as I am in private.” 

The two investigators detailed several incidents, including when Cuomo grabbed the breast of an executive assistant, who was terrified of disclosing the incident out of fear that she would lose her job. The incident was the culmination of a pattern of harassment, where Cuomo would inappropriately kiss her, ask if she would cheat on her husband, and grab her butt during hugs, the report said.

The investigators also said Cuomo inappropriately touched a New York state trooper assigned to protect the governor. His behavior with the state trooper came after he hired her to his protection unit, despite her not meeting the minimum state police service requirement. He allegedly ran his hands across her body, asked her to kiss him, described his criteria for a girlfriend and asked her to find him one, according to the report.

Cuomo also allegedly kissed her on the cheek in front of another state trooper — who confirmed the account — and asked her why she didn’t wear a dress, the report said.

All 11 women interviewed made credible accusations, Clark said. Bennett’s account, in particular, was backed up by her own text messages and internal communications within the governor’s office. 

The report substantiated Bennett’s claims that Cuomo asked her if she had been with older men and if she was monogamous. Bennett reported discussions she had had with the governor about her being a survivor of sexual assault to the governor’s then-chief of staff, Jill DesRosiers, who found Bennett’s claims to be credible. The governor’s office moved Bennett to a different position, but did not report the allegations to the state agency tasked with harassment investigations and conducted no formal inquiry, the report found. 

It also substantiated former aide Lindsey Boylan’s claims that the governor made inappropriate comments on her appearance and inappropriately touched and kissed her, including once on the lips. It also found that the governor and his office actively tried to discredit her by releasing confidential internal documents to the press and proposing an op-ed that would disparage her publicly. 

Other allegations listed in the report range from nicknaming a woman “sponge,” and making a sexual joke while getting a coronavirus test. Cuomo has adamantly denied several of the allegations, but did not dispute using nicknames like “honey” or “sweetheart”, and making comments on women’s appearances or regularly hugging and kissing women — but he did dispute how those behaviors were interpreted by his accusers. 

Bennett was transferred after reporting the governor’s behavior, and described living in constant fear in her work environment in text messages obtained by the investigators, Kim said. Her exit from the Cuomo administration was due to her fears over what would happen if she rejected him, Kim said.

Cuomo apologized to Bennett in a press conference, where he denied the allegations that he sexually harassed multiple women. He said that his conversation with Bennett about the fact that she was a survivor of sexual assault, one that she said made her uncomfortable and later reported, was him attempting to help her through her trauma like he helped an unnamed family member who was also a victim of sexual assault.

“I know too well the manifestations of sexual assault trauma, and the damage that it can do in the aftermath,” said Cuomo. “I’ve heard Charlotte, and her lawyer, and I understand what they are saying. But, they read into comments that I made, and [drew] inferences that I never meant. They ascribe motives I never had.”

He alluded to his earlier criticisms of the investigation as politically motivated, and said that his office is a demanding place to work because of the high-stakes nature of governing.

But, in the attorney general’s press conference, Kim said the culture at the governor’s office made it nearly impossible to report harassment. He praised the women who did come forward for the investigation, which took more than five months and reviewed more than 74,000 documents, emails, texts and pictures.

“These women were in a hostile and toxic work environment,” James said. “We should believe women … What this investigation revealed was a disturbing pattern of conduct by the governor of the great state of New York, and those who did not put in place any protocols or procedures to protect these young women who believed in public service.”

James said that because the matter was civil in nature, it would not carry any criminal consequences. The Albany Police Department has a report from the woman whose breast was groped, and any prosecutors or police departments can separately decide to take further action, Clark said. The women could decide to file a civil action against Cuomo, though they may be limited by the three-year federal statute of limitations, Clark added.

James said it was up to Cuomo whether or not he would resign and the New York State Assembly to institute any penalties, like impeachment. She declined to comment on whether or not she thought Cuomo should run again for governor.  

The slow-moving impeachment process that began in March may pick up now that the report has been released. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the assembly would be reviewing the report and that it indicates Cuomo may not be fit for office.

“The findings contained in the report are disturbing,” Heastie said in a statement. “The details provided by the victims are gut-wrenching. Our hearts go out to all the individuals who have had to endure this horrible experience. The conduct by the governor outlined in this report would indicate someone who is not fit for office.” 

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins renewed her call for Cuomo to resign in a statement, saying it’s clear that he can no longer serve as governor.

“Our highest elected officials must reflect the values and integrity that they profess and New Yorkers hold dear,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “I thank the attorney general and her investigators for their thorough investigation. I also wanted to give a special thank you to the courageous women who bravely stepped forward to shed light on this awful situation. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.” 

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.