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NY Governor Cuomo harassed multiple women, state AG finds

Critics of Governor Andrew Cuomo have said the allegations alone were enough to force the three-term Democrat's resignation, but Cuomo refused to step down before the attorney general had announced her findings.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The nearly five-months-long investigation into New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ended Tuesday with New York's attorney general finding that several women in his administration suffered unwanted sexual harassment.

In addition to finding that Cuomo, 63, "did sexually harass multiple women — including former and current state employees — by engaging in unwanted groping, kissing, and hugging, and making inappropriate comments," the investigators found evidence of retaliatory efforts taken by the governor and his senior staff against at least one of the women who came forward.

Cuomo made no indication of voluntarily resigning in the wake of the report, and instead offered several challenges to aspects of the report’s findings at a separate press conference Tuesday in Albany. “The facts are much different than have been portrayed,” he said during the 14-minute briefing. 

“Politics and bias are interwoven throughout every aspect of this situation,” Cuomo said. “One would be naïve to think otherwise, and New Yorkers are not naïve.

“I called for an independent review, and I said at the beginning I said I would let the process unfold,” Cuomo said this afternoon. “I didn’t want anyone to say that I interfered. I said I would hold my tongue and I have, making only limited comments.” 

For many others, however, including fellow Democrats, statements are piling up that say it is finally time for the state to remove the recalcitrant Cuomo.

“It is beyond clear that Andrew Cuomo is not fit to hold office and can no longer serve as governor," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said this afternoon. "He must resign, and if he continues to resist and attack the investigators who did their jobs, he should be impeached immediately.”

President Joe Biden echoed the call for Cuomo to step down but disclosed that he has not yet read the attorney general’s report in full.

“Yes. He should resign,” Biden said during a press conference at the White House, hours after the bombshell report was released.

The president had said in March during an ABC News interview that, if allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo turned out to be true, the governor would “probably end up being prosecuted, too.”

Biden didn’t go quite as far Tuesday when pressed about those March comments. “What I said is if the attorney general concluded allegations are correct in March, that I would recommend he resign. That’s what I’m doing today,” Biden said.

The president also would not speculate on whether the governor should be ousted through impeachment.

"I understand the state legislature may decide to impeach," Biden continued, "but I do not know that for a fact."

Cuomo acceded to the investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James in early March after a second former employee of his administration went public with claims that the governor had harassed her.

Charlotte Bennett, a low-level aide in the governor's administration until November 2020, told The New York Times that Cuomo asked her inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men.

Her accusation came days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, elaborated on harassment allegations she first made in December. Boylan said Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and inappropriate comments.

Responding Tuesday to broader allegations of inappropriate touching, Cuomo reprised a defense he asserted earlier in the scandal.

“I have been making the same gesture in public all my life. I actually learned it from my mother and my father,” said Cuomo, who leans on his Italian-American heritage. “I do kiss people on the forehead, I do kiss people on the cheek, I do kiss people on the hand. I do embrace people.” 

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The governor said he had brought in an expert to design updated sexual harassment policies and procedures for him and staffers. “I now understand that there are generational or cultural perspectives that, frankly, I hadn’t fully appreciated and have learned from this,” he said Tuesday.

Speaking specifically to Bennett’s allegations this afternoon, Cuomo said he attempted to draw from his own personal experience with a sexual assault survivor in his family to help his aide process her own pain as a survivor. “I have heard Charlotte and her lawyer, and I understand what they are saying, but they are reading into comments I made and drawing inferences that I never meant.” 

Cuomo has repeatedly denied any inappropriate touching but did apologize in a Feb. 28 statement for interactions that “may have been insensitive or too personal," and said he had intended to be a mentor for Bennett.

But the 168-page report from James' office found little support to Cuomo's “blanket denials” and his “lack of recollection as to specific incidents.”

The investigators found that such memory holes “stood in stark contrast to the strength, specificity, and corroboration of the complainants’ recollections, as well as the reports of many other individuals who offered observations and experiences of the governor’s conduct.”   

Of 11 women whose allegations were deemed credible on Tuesday, nine were current or former members of the Executive Chamber or were employees of other state agencies or state-affiliated entities.

An unnamed executive assistant described for investigators how Cuomo's behavior became increasingly intimate, first with regular hugs and kisses on the cheek and escalating with incidents such as his grabbing her butt while they took a selfie in the Executive Mansion and another where the governor reached under her blouse and grabbed her breast during a hug.

The report also recounts allegations from a female state trooper assigned to Cuomo's protective detail known as the Protective Services Unit, who accused the governor of inappropriately running his finger from her neck to her spine and then feeling her stomach from her belly button to her hips.

Speaking to the report's findings on toxic and hostile culture of the New York executive chamber, investigator Joon Kim said at Tuesday's press briefing it was "an environment ripe for harassment."

“It was a culture where you could not say no to the governor," Kim said.

New York Attorney General Letitia James stands with independent investigators Anne Clark and Joon Kim on Tuesday, Aug. 3, to announce the findings of a sexual harassment investigation into Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Image via Courthouse News)

The report cites a text message describing the hostile environment that Bennett sent to Boylan in December 2020 after Boylan's first public allegation.

"The verbal abuse, intimidation and living in constant fear were all horribly toxic — dehumanizing and traumatizing. And then he came onto me. I was scared to imagine what would happen if I rejected him, so I disappeared instead," Bennett wrote.

"My time in public service ended because he was bored and lonely. It still breaks my heart," she added.

As the scandal churned last spring, Cuomo steadfastly refused to resign and held press conferences where he scorned mounting pressure within his own party for his removal as “anti-democratic” and indicative of so-called “cancel culture.”

Notwithstanding his denials, the three-term governor initially welcomed the probe and urged New Yorkers and state lawmakers to wait for the exculpatory findings of the investigation, but later questioned the neutrality of the attorney general’s probe.

“I have concerns as to the independence of the reviewers,” Cuomo said at July 26 press conference. “Is this all happening in a political system? Yes. That is undeniable,” Cuomo said, questioning the political motivations of the attorneys tapped by the attorney general to investigate the allegations.

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The furor over the sexual harassment allegations comes weeks after Cuomo's reputation suffered a blow thanks to revelations that his administration had underreported Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes. It was James who issued a report examining the Cuomo administration's failure to include nursing home residents who died at hospitals in its tally of nursing home deaths.

James announced that she had tapped Kim, a former federal prosecutor, to lead the independent probe into the mounting allegations after receiving an executive referral to carry out the sexual harassment investigation of Cuomo. Kim briefly took over the helm at the Southern District of New York in March 2017 after then-President Donald Trump unceremoniously fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara during a purge of Obama appointees.  

By January 2018, Kim was out, too, replaced by former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a Trump donor appointed by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

Kim then became a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. In the probe, Kim was joined by Anne Clark, a partner at Vladeck, Raskin & Clark specializing in employment law.  

Contracts with the two outside firms investigating sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo were originally set to expire on September 6, but were reportedly extended in August to run through December 2021.

“Our work is concluded and the document is now public. The matter is civil in nature and does not have any criminal consequences,” James said during a 45-minute press briefing Tuesday morning. “All of us should be focused on keeping women safe, believing women, and allowing women to speak their truth,” she added.

Cuomo's private counsel Rita Glavin issued a position statement Tuesday afternoon rebuking the report. 

"The investigators have directed an utterly biased investigation and willfully ignored evidence inconsistent with the narrative they have sought to weave form the outset," Glavin wrote. "In coming to their conclusion, they ignored the governor’s testimony and substantial corroborating evidence, and were not candid about that fact at a press conference during which they announced their findings."

Civil rights attorney Debra Katz emphasized Tuesday morning that the state's findings are a complete vindication of what her client "Charlotte Bennett stated publicly, at great personal cost, more than six months ago: Governor Cuomo sexually harassed her during her employment as his executive assistant and his enablers protected him and covered it up."

"The governor came on to Charlotte and made unwelcome sexual advances toward her in his personal office as New York endured the height of the Covid-19 pandemic," Katz said in a statement. "The actions he took against Charlotte fit the very definition of sexual harassment under Executive Department policy, and, further, violated New York state law. He subjected Charlotte to sexual harassment, individually, and created a sexually hostile and toxic work environment for all women."

During early months of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, when New York City saw rising case counts and overflowing morgues as the then-epicenter of the virus, Cuomo garnered national praise and an Emmy award as a strong hand at the helm of the burgeoning public health crisis.

His book, "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic," was published in October by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.

Cuomo will reportedly net over $5 million from his publishing deal, which also includes a forthcoming memoir in addition to the book on his Covid-19 leadership.

The New York Constitution grants the 150-member state Assembly the power to impeach officials by the vote of a simple majority, or 76 lawmakers. Just one governor — William “Plain Bill” Sulzer — has ever been impeached in the state. 

Historians believe Sulzer’s impeachment in 1913 stemmed from his refusal to end investigations into the corrupt political bosses of New York City’s Tammany Hall. 

Follow Josh Russell and Brandi Buchman on Twitter

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