Monday, September 20, 2021

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Biden calls for Cuomo to resign after report finds the New York governor sexually harassed 11 women


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed current and former state employees, creating a hostile work environment for women in violation of state and federal law, state Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday.

Hours after the release of a 165-page report that detailed numerous allegations against Cuomo, President Joe Biden said he believed the Democratic governor to resign, joining a chorus of similar calls by other party officials.

Investigators laid out a devastating portrait of Cuomo's behavior and extensive examples of unwanted physical touching, including an incident last November in which Cuomo embraced an executive assistant and reached under her blouse to grab her breast. Witnesses also described an environment in the governor's office that was abusive and vindictive, with one of the women who came forward targeted for retaliation through the release of her personnel file, investigators said.

In all, the independent probe found that Cuomo harassed 11 women, including a state trooper whom the governor arranged to be put on his detail.

"This investigation has revealed conduct that corrodes the very fabric and character of our state government," James, D, said at a news conference.

The findings mark a new low for once-celebrated Democratic star, who won an Emmy in 2020 for his nationally televised briefings during the pandemic, appeared on track for reelection to a fourth term in 2022 and was frequently discussed as a presidential contender. He is now isolated from his own party's leadership, the result of a months-long investigation that was based on interviews with 179 individuals, including women who accused the governor of misconduct, Cuomo himself and a coterie of his top advisers.

The probe was launched after multiple women accused Cuomo of inappropriate personal comments or unwelcome physical contact earlier this year.

On Tuesday, James deflected questions from reporters about whether Cuomo should resign, saying "that decision is ultimately up to the governor of the state of New York." She said her office was not making any criminal referrals but noted that the report was publicly available.

Separately, Albany County District Attorney Davis Soares disclosed an ongoing criminal investigation of Cuomo by his office. "We will be formally requesting investigative materials obtained by the AG's Office, and we welcome any victim to contact our office with additional information," Soares said in a statement.

In a video address Tuesday afternoon, Cuomo maintained a defiant posture. He said he would continue serving as governor and defended himself as a champion of women and victims of sexual harassment. "The facts are much different than what has been portrayed," he said.

"That's not who I am," the governor said of his depiction in the attorney general's report.

Cuomo denied the claim that he groped an executive assistant's breast. "That never happened," he said. He said other complainants sought to "unfairly characterize and weaponize everyday interactions," noting his tendency to greet women and men warmly.

After months of asking New Yorkers to withhold judgment until the attorney general's report was released, his office released an extensive rebuttal document, calling the probe "an utterly biased investigation" that "willfully ignored evidence."

The document included eight pages of photographs of Cuomo kissing and hugging other officials in public, and a second exhibit filled with photographs of other prominent Democratic officials, including President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former president Barack Obama doing the same.

The governor also said he would bring in an "expert" to provide him and his office with sexual harassment training.

But the extent of the political fallout for Cuomo remains to be seen. When asked about the report Tuesday afternoon, Biden told reporters, "I think he should resign."

"Look, I'm not going to flyspeck this," the president added. "I'm sure there are some embraces that were totally innocent. But apparently the attorney general decided there were things that weren't."

Pelosi and three House Democrats from New York also called on the governor to step down, joining about a dozen from the state delegation who had previously done so.

"We commend the brave women who came forward and spoke truth to power," Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Thomas Suozzi and Gregory Meeks said in a statement. "The time has come for Governor Andrew Cuomo to do the right thing for the people of New York State and resign."

The state's two Democratic senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, also reiterated their calls for his resignation.

"No elected official is above the law," they said in a statement. "The people of New York deserve better leadership in the governor's office. We continue to believe that the Governor should resign."

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D, called the report "disturbing" and the victim accounts "gut-wrenching."

But he stopped short of saying the findings were sufficient to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Cuomo. "We will now undertake an in-depth examination of the report and its corresponding exhibits with our Assembly counsels as well [as] the legal firm we have retained to assist us," he said in a statement. "We will have more to say in the very near future."

Investigators detailed numerous occasions in which they said Cuomo violated sexual harassment statutes: The governor allegedly grabbed the buttocks of an employee of another state office, made sexually suggestive comments to a young female assistant and inappropriately touched other women not employed by the state.

Joon Kim, the former acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York appointed by James to help lead the investigation, said some women "suffered through unwanted touching and grabbing of their most intimate body parts."

"The executive chamber's workplace culture was rife with bullying, fear and intimidation on one hand while normalizing frequent flirtations and gender-based comments by the governor on the other," Kim added.

The report detailed the account of a female state trooper in her late 20s, whose allegations had not been previously reported, who was hired onto Cuomo's detail after he met her, even though she did not have adequate experience. He would ask her questions about her attire, such as why she did not wear a dress, the report said. She told him it was impossible to carry a gun when wearing a dress.

The governor also touched the trooper inappropriately on several occasions, running his finger down her spine when he was standing behind her on an elevator, according to the report. In another episode, Cuomo allegedly ran his hand across her stomach as she held the door open for him at an event.

"I felt . . . completely violated because to me . . . that's between my chest and my privates," the trooper testified, adding: "But, you know, I'm here to do a job."

Separately, the report detailed inappropriate behavior the governor allegedly exhibited toward a young executive assistant employed in his executive chamber - actions that escalated to unwanted touching.

One day, Cuomo told her it was "about time you showed some leg" when she wore a dress, she told investigators, and later asked if she had kissed or "fooled around" with someone other than her husband.

At one point, the governor said to her something like, "If you were single, the things I would do to you," she recalled.

In one incident in December 2019, he asked her to take a selfie with him and then "moved his hand to grab her butt cheek and began to rub it," the report said. The executive assistant was shaking so much that the photos were blurry.

Eleven months later, the executive assistant was dispatched to assist Cuomo at the executive mansion. As she was leaving, he slammed the door shut and slid his hand up her blouse, cupping her breast, the report said.

"I remember thinking to myself who - I knew what just went on, I knew and he knew too that was wrong," she told investigators. "And that I in no way, shape or form invited that nor did I ask for it. I didn't want it. I feel like I was being taken advantage of."

Cuomo denied that he touched her.

The assistant said she planned to stay quiet about what had happened and take it "to the grave," but later told others after she grew distraught watching Cuomo deny publicly that he had ever touched a woman inappropriately.

The report also found that Cuomo made numerous suggestive sexual comments that constituted "unlawful sexual harassment." These included telling the female state trooper that his criteria for a girlfriend was someone who "can handle pain," suggesting a buttock tattoo to one aide and calling two executive assistants "mingle mamas" while asking one of them whether she would be willing to cheat on her partner.

In a long interview with investigators in late July, the governor admitted to some of the claims against him, according to special deputy Anne L. Clark, but put a "different spin on them," she said. In some instances, he denied allegations or said he did not remember details.

The rebuttal document released by Cuomo on Tuesday disputes the characterizations of his accusers and argues that Cuomo maintained a "family" atmosphere in his office.

"He is informal with his staff and banters with all employees, again, regardless of gender, in an effort to bring collegiality and levity to their high-pressure and demanding positions," his attorney Rita Glavin wrote. "He is interested in their lives."

But the women he targeted found Cuomo's behavior humiliating, offensive or inappropriate, according to the investigation. In a text exchange with a close friend after one conversation with Cuomo, aide Charlotte Bennett wrote, "Something just happened and I can't even type it out . . . GOING TO BURST INTO TEARS."

The claims surfaced publicly earlier this year when Lindsey Boylan, a former aide, wrote in an online post that the governor had sexually harassed her for years, saying he touched her lower back and arms and once kissed her. His aides later released details from her personnel file, an action the investigation concluded was "unlawful retaliation."

Days after Boylan's post, then-former aide Bennett alleged in an interview with the New York Times that Cuomo made suggestive comments she interpreted as sexual advances.

Other women said the governor quizzed them about their dating lives, part of an office culture they viewed as degrading and toxic.

The attorney general's report found that Cuomo's office did not handle complaints according to state law.

"We conclude that the Executive Chamber failed to follow its own policies and procedures related to sexual harassment in responding to several of the complaints," the report said.

The governor and his aides sought to undermine the women who came forward and undercut the investigators, the report concluded.

After Boylan tweeted that the governor was "one of the biggest abusers of all time," top aide Melissa DeRosa asked for her "full file." It was then disseminated to a number of reporters over several days by Cuomo aides and advisers, according to the investigation.

Cuomo also drafted an op-ed to attack Boylan but was talked out of it by advisers who reviewed it and found it to be "victim shaming that they found inadvisable."

In addition, records uncovered by the investigators show that days after Cuomo said he welcomed the investigation, a longtime adviser said he was being asked to "spread oppo" about Kim. At another point, Cuomo advisers asked for conversations with potential victims to be recorded for information they could use to potentially defend the governor. But the recordings weren't used because they didn't go well, DeRosa testified.

Other state officials were brought in to assist with damage control.

At one point, Larry Schwartz, the state's vaccine czar and a longtime Cuomo adviser, called county executives to ask if they were going to issue public statements for the governor to resign, the report found.

The investigation said DeRosa, the governor's top aide, requested the calls, which made the county officials uncomfortable because they viewed them as implicit threats linking their access to vaccines to their stance on Cuomo's actions.

And CNN anchor Chris Cuomo helped his brother draft a statement to address the allegations and attended calls with other advisers to discuss the matter, according to the investigation.

Chris Cuomo told investigators "there was discussion about remedial measures the Chamber should take in light of the sexual harassment allegations, but some people had taken the position that they should just wait," according to the report.

The independent investigation was conducted by Kim, a partner at the law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, and Clark, a longtime employment and discrimination attorney. Both were appointed by James after Cuomo - under pressure from fellow Democrats - referred allegations about his behavior to her office.

Debra Katz, a lawyer for Bennett, said the investigation showed "egregious" sexual harassment and that his inner circle was "aware of the allegations and enabled him to continually sexually harass women, or just moved the women out."

She called Cuomo's rebuttal "disturbing."

"If he really cared about the treatment of women in New York state, he would step down," she said.

Even before it was released, Cuomo and his team tried to undermine the report, claiming that James has been using the probe to burnish her standing for a possible gubernatorial run. They also have accused the attorney general's office of disclosing information to the news media, without providing evidence of such leaks.

Cuomo had been expected to seek a fourth term next year and has retained an approval rating in New York around 50% despite the slew of allegations, though some of his advisers saw it as his toughest race yet.

The governor remains under investigation by federal and state authorities on a number of other issues, including his administration's handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic, the preferred access that Cuomo family members were given to coronavirus testing, and work that state employees did on a memoir about his leadership during the pandemic that secured him a $5 million advance.

Published : August 04, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Josh Dawsey, Michael Scherer