Engulfed in two sets of sexual harrasment allegations made by former aides in less than one week, New York scandal-embroiled Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) finally surrendered on the state’s Attorney General Letitia James request by granting a referral for her office to be the sole authority in investigating, with subpoena authority the claims of misconduct.
In a series of extended back-and-forth between Cuomo and James over how the probe should be conducted into the misconduct claims lodged against him with the Governor attempting to have his office be included in playing a role. At first, Cuomo’s office tapped former federal judge Barbara Jones to conduct an “independent review” into the allegation matter following a second former staffer coming forward.
The new sexual allegations emerged Saturday evening when a former aide, Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former executive assistant and health policy adviser to Cuomo told her alleged accounts to the New York Times. In different uncomfortable encounters with the three-term governor, Bennett told the publication how Cuomo would make a series of inappropriate “comments she interpreted as clear overtures to a sexual relationship,” all of which the incidents occurred during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic.
During one encounter, the former aide detailed to The Times when she was alone with Cuomo in his State Capitol office and began to ask her personal questions about her sex life while attempting to make a play on Bennett by letting her know he is open to dating women in their 20s.
“Age doesn’t matter,” Cuomo told Bennett, according to the Times. Cuomo said he was “fine with anyone above the age of 22,” even though Bennett is also about the same age as his own eldest daughter.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett said. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”
Bennett’s claim, in turn, came less than four days after another former staffer, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development, and a special adviser shared details of her sexual harassment allegation against Cuomo that spanned over several years. Boylan in her bombshell revelation, accused Cuomo of going “out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms, and legs,” forcibly kissing her on the lips during a one-on-one briefing, and suggesting that they “play strip poker” during a plane ride.
In a press release on Saturday, Cuomo strongly denied any wrongdoing and said that Bennett has “every right to speak out.” Shortly after, Cuomo’s special counsel and senior adviser, Beth Garvey said in a statement that Cuomo “has requested an independent review and all staff will cooperate in that endeavor. Former Federal Judge Barbara Jones will lead the review.”
On Sunday morning, James requested that Cuomo’s office grant her the sole authority to appoint an independent investigator with subpoena authority, a stipulation under New York law. Under state law, the attorney general needs a referral from the governor to empower a special counsel, even though in this case the allegations are against the governor himself.
But the governor’s office issued a counter-offer, asking James to split authority by working in conjunction with Cuomo appointee, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore of the New York Court of Appeals to agree on the selection of the independent investigator.
“We will leave all decisions concerning the investigation to be made in the discretion of the independent counsel selected by the Attorney General and Chief Judge,” Garvey said in a statement Sunday morning.
James quickly rejected Cuomo’s half-measure proposal, stating under New York state law, her office is the sole authority to appoint an independent investigator.
“The state’s Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral,” James said in a state Sunday afternoon. “While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task, per Executive Law. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted.”
Following the request from Cuomo, several high profile New York Democrats including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerry Nadler, Nydia Velazquez demanded a truly independent investigation into these allegations of the Governor’s behavior.
Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, Cuomo finally caved with his office stating in a statement they would refer the matter solely to the New York Attorney General to conduct “an independent review of allegations of sexual harassment,” and would fully cooperate voluntarily on the matter.
“The Governor’s office wants a thorough and independent review that is above reproach and beyond political interference. Therefore the Governor’s office has asked Attorney General Tish James to select a qualified private lawyer to do an independent review of allegations of sexual harassment,” Garvey said in a final statement Sunday evening. “The Governor’s office will voluntarily cooperate fully.”
In a different statement nearly 24 hours after Bennett revealed her claims, Cuomo sought to explain his interactions, downplay the allegations by claiming his “playful” banter were “jokes” that were misinterpreted as “unwanted flirtation.”
“At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good-natured way,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
The embattled governor also acknowledged some of his interactions with women “may have been insensitive or too personal” while maintaining he has “never inappropriately touched anybody.”
“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,” Cuomo said. “To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to.”
“That’s why I have asked for an outside, independent review that looks at these allegations,” he added.
The allegations of sexual misconduct by two former aides, which followed an exploding scandal surrounding his administration revealing they hide the data of the true number of COVID deaths of nursing home residents has left Cuomo at his most vulnerable point since taking office over 10 years ago. At the height of the pandemic, Cuomo was praised heavily for his press conference and soared to national prominence.
However, with the revelation of more than 15,000 residents of New York’s long-term care facilities have died following the AG report in January, the governor has faced fierce criticism from both sides with some of his political adversaries are more loudly calling for Cuomo to resign.