New York attorney general seeks to investigate Cuomo sexual harassment claims

Richard Luscombe
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

The crisis enveloping New York governor Andrew Cuomo deepened on Sunday evening as the state’s attorney general demanded he grant her the authority to investigate claims he sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him – and the governor admitted his behaviour may have been “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation” and offered a qualified apology.

Democrats statewide appeared to be abandoning Cuomo in large numbers.

Cuomo issued a statement on Sunday evening in which he admitted that he may have taken advantage of his powerful position and behaved in ways that “made others feel in ways I never intended”.

Cuomo said: “At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes I think are funny … I tease people in what I think is a good natured way. I do it in public and in private … [but] 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.”

He continued: “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way I am truly sorry about that.”

But the governor said he never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone.

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Congressional Democrats spent the day calling for the New York attorney general to investigate a second woman’s allegations of sexual harassment against the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, while the leader of the state’s ethics panel demanded his resignation.

Related: Second ex-aide accuses Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment

Calls from several leading Democrats came after Charlotte Bennett, an executive assistant and health policy adviser to Cuomo until November, told the New York Times on Saturday that he had harassed her last spring, during the height of New York’s battle with the coronavirus pandemic.

She said he asked her inappropriate questions about her personal life, which she believed were sexual overtures.

Earlier this week another former aide, Lindsey Boylan described numerous past incidents with Cuomo, including an alleged unsolicited kiss in his Manhattan office, in an online essay, following initial allegations she made last December.

A spokesperson for Senate majority leader and New York Democrat Chuck Schumer said the senator “has long believed sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated, and that allegations should be thoroughly and independently investigated”.

Cuomo has denied all the allegations.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “There should be an independent review looking into these allegations” adding it was something Joe Biden supports “and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible”.

Cuomo’s office asked Letitia James, the New York attorney general, and Janet DiFiore, chief judge of New York’s court of appeals, to select an “independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation” to investigate.

James said on Twitter: “Allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously. There must be a truly independent investigation to thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor, and I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary.”

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She added: “Given state law, this can only be accomplished through an official referral from the governor’s office and must include subpoena power. I urge the governor to make this referral immediately.”

The move came just hours after Democrats in Congress called on James to lead the investigation.

It was a significant step from Cuomo’s earlier position of asking a former federal judge, Barbara Jones, to lead an “outside review”.

The examination should be done “in a manner beyond reproach”, Cuomo’s office stated, adding it wanted to avoid “even the perception of a lack of independence or interference of politics”.

James then later on Sunday rejected Cuomo’s proposal for the judge and her to appoint a lawyer, saying as the attorney general she must carry out the investigation.

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Mazie Hirono, Democratic senator of Hawaii, said claims of such “reprehensible, inexcusable behaviour” by figures such as Cuomo needed exploring.

“It seems to me that the New York attorney general would be the independent entity to conduct such an investigation,” she told ABC’s This Week, adding that it took “great courage” for women to come forward.

New York Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand said: “These allegations are serious and deeply concerning. As requested by attorney general James, the matter should be referred to her office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power.”

And Democratic New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that Boylan and Bennett’s “detailed accounts of sexual harassment by Gov Cuomo are extremely serious and painful to read”.

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“There must be an independent investigation – not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the attorney general,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Alessandra Biaggi, the Democratic chair of the state senate’s ethics and internal governance committee, called for Cuomo’s resignation, calling the allegations “the epitome of a hostile workplace environment” and accusing the governor of “a clear pattern of abuse and manipulation”.

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New York City’s mayor and Cuomo’s Democratic political rival, Bill de Blasio, also weighed in, calling for two independent investigations, one over the sexual misconduct allegations, and another into claims the Cuomo administration withheld information about the extent of Covid-19 deaths in New York nursing homes.

“New Yorkers have seen detailed, documented accounts of sexual harassment, multiple instances of intimidation, and the admitted withholding of information on the deaths of over 15,000 people,” De Blasio said.

Bennett told the New York Times that she’d informed Cuomo’s chief of staff, Jill DesRosiers, about a particularly disturbing interaction with the governor less than a week after it occurred. She said she was transferred to another job on the opposite side of the state Capitol, in Albany, upstate New York. At the end of June she also gave a statement to a special counsel for Cuomo.

The governor’s special counsel, Beth Garvey, acknowledged that the complaint had been made and that Bennett had been transferred to a position in which she had already been interested.