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Opinion Why did the media ignore an allegation against an accuser of Andrew Cuomo?

Then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) speaks at a news conference on covid-19 in D.C. on May 27, 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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News organizations last year pursued many leads about the conduct of now-former New York governor Andrew Cuomo (D), including his alleged harassment of a female state trooper on his security detail, among several others, his creation of a toxic work environment extending back to his time as U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development and more.

Amid all the reporting, though, one tidbit was left unexplored: Charlotte Bennett, whose accusations against the governor last February were followed by a succession of additional complaints, had herself been accused in a 2017 federal lawsuit of having filed a false claim of “non-consensual sexual contact” against a fellow student at Hamilton College. Though the lawsuit used pseudonyms for the students, it identified Bennett by citing a newspaper opinion piece she’d written. She was not a defendant in the case, which Hamilton settled quickly on undisclosed terms.

According to the complaint in John Doe v. Hamilton College, “Sally Smith” — Bennett’s pseudonym — filed the claim against the plaintiff “knowing it was false, and knowing there was evidence of its falsity.” The suit also alleges that there was a recording in which “Smith” stated that “Doe” “did not sexually assault her.”

“Smith’s” complaint, said the lawsuit, came “in concert with” another complaint lodged to secure disciplinary action against “Doe”; four complaints against him surfaced within two weeks alleging misconduct dating back at least two years, according to the lawsuit. "Smith had been through the complaint process before and understood that multiple reports against the same individual would likely result in that individual’s removal from campus,” reads the suit. Less than two weeks before graduation, “Doe” received word that he’d be banned from campus and declared ineligible for graduation. “Smith” withdrew her claim just days after “Doe” was barred from campus, says the complaint.

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The New York Times in February 2021 broke the story of the then-25-year-old Bennett’s allegations against Cuomo, which claimed a series of creepy discussions between the junior aide and the state’s chief executive about her sex life. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett, who left the state government in fall 2020, told the Times.

The Times provided details supporting Bennett’s side of the story, including contemporaneous text messages to confidants. It also mentioned Bennett’s history of activism over sexual misconduct at Hamilton College. (Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog is a graduate of Hamilton College.) Bennett’s account to the Times, furthermore, was consistent with a subsequent interview on CBS News. “I don’t have any reason to doubt Charlotte Bennett,” said Dani Lever, a former Cuomo communications aide, in her testimony in an investigation by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Following publication of the Times story, social media activity pointed to the lawsuit involving Bennett. Then-CNN anchor Chris Cuomo appeared to raise Bennett’s history in a message to the governor’s aides, according to a recent disclosure of documents by James. Bennett herself slammed Chris Cuomo for his alleged willingness "to discredit, silence and smear women, like me, who came forward to report Governor Cuomo’s sexual misconduct.”

As to why the Times story omitted the complaint against Bennett, spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha responded, “We aren’t going to discuss our editorial process.” The lawsuit, noted Ha, was brought to the attention of the Times by an anonymous tipster following publication of the Times article, thus placing Times editors in a tricky situation: Either publish a fresh story pegged to the suit — which might have elevated it beyond its salience — or tuck a mention into the paper’s routine coverage.

Other considerations cited by Ha: “Cuomo did not deny Bennett’s accusations, which were related to inappropriate comments, not a physical assault. Cuomo’s team said Bennett misconstrued his comments. Cuomo apologized for his behavior four days after our story ran.”

The New York attorney general’s office also omitted mention of the suit in its Cuomo report. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said “the continued attempts to attack and undermine these women are classic examples of victim-shaming." A “mountain of evidence,” argued the statement, corroborated the women’s stories, and Cuomo “himself publicly admitted that Charlotte Bennett’s allegations were true and apologized to her multiple times for his inappropriate conduct.”

There were indeed apologies: “I apologized several days ago. I apologized today. I will apologize tomorrow. I will apologize the day after," said Andrew Cuomo in a March 3 briefing. But the governor later declared that his words were “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.” His lawyer subsequently said the governor “never made inappropriate advances or inappropriately touched anyone.”

Despite these discrepancies on the record, news outlets stayed away from the Hamilton lawsuit. “I was exceptionally surprised that there was little to no interest in it because it is a public record, and it would seem to bear directly on the motivations and credibility of one of the accusers,” says Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney for the plaintiff in the Hamilton College lawsuit.

Not only did the Times not cover the suit before Cuomo’s resignation, no other major publication did either — including The Post (declined to comment), New York Post (no comment), Wall Street Journal (declined to comment) and the Times Union of Albany, N.Y. “We first saw that complaint after Andrew Cuomo had announced he was leaving office,” responded Times Union editor Casey Seiler. "We read it and came to the conclusion it was tangential to the allegations facing him — the array of sexual misconduct claims as well as the other alleged abuses of power that we’ve reported on over the course of the year.”

It’s one thing to refrain from running a story on the lawsuit, another to not even inquire about it. Miltenberg says not a single major outlet contacted him about the case during the scandal. The only inquiry, says Miltenberg, came from an online journalist in August. Substack writer Michael Tracey published a piece critiquing coverage of Cuomo following his August resignation announcement under the headline, “What The Media Hasn’t Told You About The Cuomo Debacle.”

Nor did the attorney general’s office contact Miltenberg, he says, noting that he was “fully expecting” a subpoena or a request for a confidential statement. "Zero,” says the attorney.

As for the case itself, the defendant, Hamilton College, didn’t file a motion to dismiss and settled the claims within a year, so the false accusation claim never got tested in court. The docket “suggests to me that Hamilton wanted the case to go away, and it’s likely that they paid money to see that that happened,” says attorney John Vail, an expert in civil procedure. (The college declined to comment.)

Jessica Westerman, a lawyer for Bennett, emphasizes that the case didn’t reach the fact-finding phase and that it’s irrelevant to her client’s role as a Cuomo accuser. “The allegations...are just that — unproven allegations, and I don’t see why they should be given any more weight in this context than in any other context,” says Westerman, who adds that the attorney general “substantiated” Bennett’s claims about Cuomo and that Bennett has “never filed a false complaint of sexual misconduct against the plaintiff in that lawsuit or anyone else at Hamilton or elsewhere.”

As to whether Bennett withdrew her complaint after “Doe” was barred from campus, Westerman declined to discuss the specifics of the lawsuit but noted that there are many reasons someone would decline to participate in an on-campus sexual misconduct investigation. Westerman declined to comment on the claim about a recording (the lawsuit claims the plaintiff learned that one of the complainants had provided the recording to the college, which suggests that both sides saw value in its contents.)

Aides to the governor decided not to promote coverage of the suit against Hamilton. “There was an assumption that the media would do its job as referee and arbiter in disclosing and scrutinizing this vital piece of this person’s credibility,” says a high-ranking former Cuomo administration official. “And it never happened.”

The pioneering journalists in #MeToo stories have produced unassailable work by researching accusations as well as the accusers themselves. “Caution was essential,” write Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in “She Said,” their account of the Times’s #MeToo investigations. “If a single allegation in a story turned out to be shaky, it could undermine the entire article.”

There are many possible explanations for the lawsuit’s omission, including sheer workload: There was such a scramble to break the next accuser’s story — there were 11 complainants detailed in the attorney general’s report — that reporters didn’t have the bandwidth to take a second look at the last one. As each new accusation emerged, journalists struggled to characterize Cuomo’s mold-breaking style of alleged mistreatment — something that New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister best framed as “a kind of diminishment and tokenization that may take a sexualized form, and may involve objectification and flirtation, but which didn’t always entail explicitly sexualized contact or connection.”

The ouster of Andrew Cuomo has had a long tail: In recent weeks, prosecutors in three New York counties have declined to pursue criminal charges against him for various acts of alleged sexual misconduct, despite describing the allegations or the accuser as credible in each case. “We don’t weep for Cuomo,” editorialized the New York Daily News.

Few do! But that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve a more curious press corps.