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Cuomo resigns, unable to shake harassment scandal

Leaving office cuts short the governor's third term but preserves the opportunity to run again for statewide office, which would have been lost to him if he had been impeached and convicted.

ALBANY (CN) — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation from office Tuesday, capitulating finally to the backlash that broke last year at the height of his popularity when multiple women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment.

The resignation is set to become effective in 14 days, with Cuomo handing over the reins to Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. Cuomo said the timing is meant to ensure a smooth transition for Hochul, a Democrat who will become New York's first female governor.

“Given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing," Cuomo said. "And therefore, that’s what I’ll do, because I work for you and doing the right thing is doing the right thing for you."

Cuomo's exit comes a week after state Attorney General Letitia James released the results of an independent investigation on Aug. 3, finding that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women. The Democratic Cuomo, 63, has been elected three times and previously planned to seek a fourth term in the 2022 election.

Scandal jettisoned those plans in 2020, undercutting the national prominence Cuomo had briefly attained for his leadership of New York when the state was an early epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. While also battling charges that his administration underreported Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes, Cuomo was hit last year with allegations from former aides who said he touched them without their consent, made sexually suggestive and gender-based comments, and used retaliatory tactics to keep them quiet.

Cuomo aggressively denied the allegations at every turn. Even as the calls for resignation grew from within his own party, he said to step down without an investigation would be undemocratic.

But in a live-streamed address just before noon Tuesday, Cuomo said he reconsidered his first instinct to fight what he called a “politically motivated” controversy that he regarded untruthful and unfair. At a time when the state is responding to the delta variant of Covid-19, Cuomo noted that efforts to impeach him would distract from the state's pandemic recovery, costing taxpayers millions of dollars for proceedings that would take months of political and legal wrangling.

“Government needs to perform. It is a matter of life and death,” Cuomo said.

Whether the State Assembly will still work to impeach Cuomo remains unclear. Cuomo would have been barred from being elected to state office again if he had been impeached and convicted by the Assembly's Judiciary Committee. Having just taken the report from Attorney General James into its confidential executive session on Monday, the committee is set to meet on Aug. 16.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie had promised to expedite impeachment proceedings a week ago and set an Aug. 13 deadline for Cuomo and his legal team to provide additional evidence in the governor's defense.

Still not admitting to any to the most serious allegations of unwanted touching that he faced, Cuomo reiterated Tuesday that he did not believe that he had committed any misconduct. Cuomo insisted that the investigation against him failed to distinguish between “alleged improper conduct and concluding sexual harassment.”

“In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” Cuomo said. “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”

Though the governor said he has always hugged and kissed men and women casually, and that his sense of humor can end up being insensitive, Cuomo also said he took full responsibility for his actions and acknowledging that he offended 11 women.

To one of those women, a female state trooper in Cuomo's protection detail who said he touched her back in an elevator and touched her stomach while walking past her, Cuomo apologized specifically.

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Cuomo said he did not remember the incidents with the trooper and he called his actions thoughtless, insensitive and a mistake.

This image shows Brittany Commisso, left, answering questions during an interview with CBS correspondent Jericka Duncan on "CBS This Morning" on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021, in New York. (CBS This Morning and Times Union via AP)

An attorney for Charlotte Bennett, another of the governor's accusers, said Cuomo resigned only because he had run out of options after being confronted with the mounting tide of evidence laid out in the attorney general’s report.

Stating that Cuomo's criticisms of the investigation sickened her, attorney Debra Katz noted that Bennett only came forward after Cuomo tasked his “well-oiled political machine” with discrediting the first woman to came forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

Katz called the state's ensuing investigation "a model for high-stakes investigations should proceed," and noted that it was done under intense public scrutiny.

“The governor’s decision to resign is not the end of our reckoning with sexual harassment, but it is an important step in the right direction,” Katz said.

Cuomo's rise to office cemented a state politics dynasty; his father, Mario Cuomo, also occupied the governor’s mansion in the mid-1980s and early ‘90s. But Cuomo downplayed that pedigree in his 2020 book “American Crisis,” describing himself as having grown up in New York City “as an outer-borough, middle-class guy."

Like his son, Mario Cuomo saw his name floated out as a possible candidate for U.S. president. As The New York Times reported in the elder Cuomo's obituary, however, he chose not to run due to a stalled negotiation at the time to create a state budget. 

In "American Crisis," Andrew Cuomo described his gubernatorial career as his second political life — a life that began with his successful run for the state’s attorney general’s office in 2006. He had a failed run for governor in 2002 after serving as secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration.

Touting some of the highlights of his decade-long tenure as governor at Tuesday's press conference, Cuomo pointed to his work on marriage equality, the passage of gun-safety laws, a $15 minimum wage and the management of “every emergency mother nature could throw at us.”

Less boast-worthy, Cuomo's time as governor was also marked by a long-running feud with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Soon after Cuomo announced his resignation, de Blasio tweeted it was a long-overdue move that was good for the state.

“Make no mistake, this is the result of survivors bravely telling their stories,” de Blasio wrote.

Attorney General James thanked Cuomo for his work and said in a statement she looked forward to working with Hochul in her new role as governor, building on what was already accomplished. 

“Today closes a sad chapter for all of New York, but it’s an important step towards justice,” James said.

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, also welcomed Hochul as the next governor of the state, highlighting the deputy's experience as town board member, clerk of a county and congresswoman. 

“I am confident that incoming Governor Hochul’s empathy, work ethic and authentic concern for the welfare of its citizens will make her an outstanding Governor for our State,” Jacobs said in a statement

State Republicans meanwhile have their eyes trained on the 2022 race.

Nick Langworthy, chairman of the New York Republican State Committee, wrote on Twitter that the time has come to wipe “the entire stench of the Cuomo Administration” from state government.

Lindsey Boylan, a former state economic development adviser for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaks at a March 20, 2021, rally calling for his impeachment at Washington Square Park in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)

Cuomo acceded to the investigation by Attorney General James in early March after Charlotte Bennett became the second former employee of his administration to go public with claims that the governor had harassed her.

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.

Two days after attorney general’s report went public, an unnamed aide who accused Cuomo of groping her breast at the governor’s executive mansion filed a criminal complaint against him with the Albany County Sheriff’s office.

The aide who says Cuomo reached under her blouse during a hug is identified as “Executive Assistant #1" in the attorney general’s report, which also quotes her as alleging that Cuomo engaged in a pattern of escalating inappropriate conduct that included close and intimate hugs; kisses on the cheeks, forehead, and at least one kiss on the lips; and touching and grabbing of her butt during hugs, once while posing for “selfie” photographs together.

Cuomo hired attorney Rita Glavin to handle his defense. Glavin is a former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, who later served as second-in-command at the Department of Justice Criminal Division under President George W. Bush. President Barrack Obama appointed her to oversee the Criminal Division’s transition after he took office in 2009.

Meantime, district attorneys in Manhattan, Westchester and Nassau have all urged the Attorney General’s Office to begin requesting investigative materials in its possession pertaining to “potential sex crimes” that happened at offices the governor uses in their districts.

The New York Constitution grants the 150-member Assembly the power to impeach officials by the vote of a simple majority, or 76 lawmakers.

All seven judges on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, who would join states senators as members of the jury in the state’s impeachment trial, were appointed by Cuomo.

New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who would preside over the impeachment proceedings, was nominated to her post by Cuomo in 2016. She is also married to Dennis Glazer, who practiced law for 31 years at Davis Polk & Wardwell, which is the firm that the Assembly tapped to conduct its impeachment investigation.

Just one governor — William “Plain Bill” Sulzer — has ever been impeached in the state. 

Historians believe Sulzer’s impeachment more than a hundred years ago in 1913 stemmed from his refusal to halt investigations into the corrupt political bosses of New York City’s Tammany Hall. 

Follow Josh Russell and Daniel Jackson on Twitter

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