To deputize a private firm for the independent investigation, the state attorney general needed the governor’s referral.
ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — New York’s independent investigation into claims of workplace sexual harassment against Governor Andrew Cuomo is now underway, Attorney General Letitia James announced on Monday following her appointment of special counsel.
“Today, the executive chamber transmitted a referral letter to our office, providing us the authority to move forward with an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment claims made against Governor Cuomo,” Letitia “Tish” James said in statement. “This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously.”
Already facing political fallout from his handling of Covid-related deaths at the state’s nursing homes, Cuomo was besieged over the weekend by calls for an official probe of his workplace behavior after a second former aide of his administration went public with claims that the 63-year old Democratic governor harassed her.
To investigate Cuomo’s workplace conduct, however, James was required by state law to get a referral from the governor.
“We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation,” she said in a statement Sunday.
The findings of the probe will be disclosed in a public report following the close of the review, the governor’s special counsel, Beth Harvey, said in a letter to James’ office on Monday.
On Saturday, The New York Times quoted Charlotte Bennett, a low-level aide in Cuomo’s administration until November, as saying that the governor asked her inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men.
This came days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, expounded on harassment allegations she first made in December.
“His inappropriate behavior toward women was an affirmation that he liked you, that you must be doing something right,” Boylan wrote in a blog post last week, alleging that Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and inappropriate comments.
“He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences,” Boylan said.
Cuomo said in a statement Saturday he had intended to be a mentor for Bennett, who is 25.
In an apology statement the following day, Cuomo denied he ever inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone.
He did, however, acquiesce that he had teased people in his office about their personal lives in an attempt to be “playful.”
“I do it in public and in private,” Cuomo wrote. “You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.
“I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” Cuomo said in the statement on Sunday.
Over the weekend, Cuomo initially declined to refer the investigation directly to the James’ office and instead directed it to the state’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, whom Cuomo appointed, and to former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones, who once worked as partner at a law firm with one of the governor’s closest advisers.
James, who was endorsed by Cuomo during her 2018 bid to become the state’s top prosecutor, firmly rejected his proposals on the grounds that nothing less than a referral to independent counsel under the state’s Executive Law § 63(8) would be accepted.
The uproar over the sexual harassment allegations comes weeks after state leaders and other representatives called for an investigation into findings that Cuomo’s administration had underreported Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes.
Those revelations of undercounting nursing home deaths led to proposed legislation seeking to strip the governor’s emergency executive powers allowed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among the state legislators pushing Cuomo has been Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose uncle, a nursing home resident, died of Covid-19 last spring. Kim said Cuomo called him after the legislator began aggressively asking questions, threatening to “destroy” him.
“He goes off about how I hadn’t seen his wrath and anger, that he would destroy me, and he would go out tomorrow and start telling how bad of a person I am, and I would be finished, and how he had bit his tongue about me for months,” Kim said. “This was all yelling. It wasn’t a pleasant tone.”
Over the weekend, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called for fully independent investigations into both “the disturbing personal misconduct allegations” and the nursing home deaths.
“Questions of this magnitude cannot hang over the heads of New Yorkers as we fight off a pandemic and economic crisis,” de Blasio said in statement on Saturday. “The state Legislature must immediately revoke the Governor’s emergency powers that overrule local control.”
Cuomo accrued praise as a public leader throughout the pandemic in 2020, even earning an Emmy award for his daily livestreamed coronavirus briefings while New York was the national epicenter of the coronavirus.
His book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published in October.