And still, the executive assistant said, “I was going to take this to the grave.” There was nothing to gain — “at the end of the day . . . nothing was going to happen to him” — and a job at stake she had dreamed of since childhood, when she looked at the state Capitol in Albany and told her grandmother she would work there someday.
Of all the aspects of the devastating report on Cuomo’s conduct released Tuesday by state Attorney General Letitia James, this theme — of perceived and probably rational helplessness in the face of power — is the most heartbreaking. It is threaded throughout the 165-page report: the repeated violations of personal privacy and physical space, the burning humiliation of being demeaned as a professional, the conviction that speaking out would invite retaliation.
That Cuomo could have behaved so abusively toward so many for so long — and his denials to the contrary were properly deemed unconvincing by the investigators — is nothing short of astonishing. What was tolerated, if not tolerable, in years and decades past is intolerable in 2021. Cuomo is done, whether he recognizes it or not. But his departure, if or when it comes, does not mean the problem is solved.
Because the problem, as painfully expounded in the report, is a culture that allowed this behavior to fester unaddressed. Every entity, but especially political offices in which an elected official can enjoy seeming impunity from the rules and laws that govern mere mortals, must consider: Whether it can happen here and what changes must be implemented to prevent that.
Cuomo’s “defense” is even more unconvincing today, with the sworn testimony and expert assessments detailed in the report, than it was when the allegations against him first surfaced last February. “I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” Cuomo said. “That is just not who I am, and that’s not who I have ever been.”
To read the report is to be convinced that’s precisely who Cuomo is — notwithstanding his slide-show “defense” of him kissing an array of constituents and politicians. A few people might have, as Cuomo claims, misinterpreted his motives, misunderstood his banter, misremembered what happened or even had it in for him.
But not 11 different individuals, often backed up by eyewitnesses or those they told contemporaneously. Never touched anyone inappropriately? Leave aside the executive assistant — although you shouldn’t. But what about the state trooper who Cuomo insisted be hired, despite the fact that she had only two years of service instead of the requisite three? She described standing in front of Cuomo in an elevator when she was guarding him, when he “placed his finger on the top of her neck and ran his finger down her spine midway down her back, and said ’Hey, you.’ ” Another time, she said, as she held the door open for him as he left an event, Cuomo ran his palm across her stomach, making her feel “completely violated because to me, like that’s between my chest and my privates.”
What about Virginia Limmiatis, who met Cuomo on a rope line when she was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the name of the energy company she worked for? “When the Governor reached Ms. Limmiatis, he ran two fingers across her chest, pressing down on each of the letters as he did so and reading out the name of the Energy Company as he went,” the report recounts. “The Governor then leaned in, with his face close to Ms. Limmiatis’s cheek, and said, ‘I’m going to say I see a spider on your shoulder,’ before brushing his hand in the area between her shoulder and breasts (and below her collarbone).”
These are not people with any motive to lie — indeed, they are individuals with every motive to protect their privacy and their careers by staying silent. The executive assistant said she decided to come forward after listening to Cuomo, in a news conference just down the hallway from her office, insisted that he had never behaved inappropriately toward another staffer. “I couldn’t be part of those conversations anymore, because what she was saying was the truth,” she said. “Those things actually did happen to me as well.”
But if some came forward in solidarity, others were motivated by a more twisted devotion — not to Cuomo’s victims but to the governor himself. “Whether driven by fear or blinded by loyalty,” the report concluded, “the senior staff . . . (and the Governor’s select group of outside confidantes) looked to protect the Governor and found ways not to believe or credit those who stepped forward to make or support allegations against him.”
This survival instinct is as innate as it is disappointing. Unless steps are taken to guard against it — to encourage victims to speak out and to impose consequences on those who work to retaliate against accusers — the kind of behavior outlined in the report will persist, even after the disgrace and downfall of individual abusers.