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Calls mount for independent investigation into Cuomo’s sexual harassment allegations

The New York governor has been accused of sexual harassment by former aides Charlotte Bennett and Lindsey Boylan

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks during a news conference in the Red Room of the Capitol in Albany on May 17. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg News)

The office of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has asked the state attorney general to help select a lawyer to conduct a review of sexual harassment allegations against the governor by his former aides, amid growing calls for Cuomo to be held accountable.

Cuomo had selected a former federal judge to conduct the review, but a chorus of lawmakers quickly questioned the independence of that inquiry, calling on the New York attorney general to step in.

On Sunday, Cuomo senior adviser Beth Garvey said the office wanted to avoid “even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics” and had asked New York Attorney General Letitia James and the chief judge of the Court of Appeals to choose an “independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation” to conduct a thorough review of the allegations against Cuomo.

Garvey added that all members of the governor’s office would “cooperate fully.”

The state attorney general’s office on Sunday released an almost concurrent statement calling for a “truly independent investigation” that included subpoena power and the ability to call witnesses and obtain documents from the governor’s office. Under state law, only Cuomo can give the official referral for such an investigation, which was not the same as the review his office had asked for.

“We are calling for an investigation based on the law. What he’s doing here is putting out a press release,” said a spokesman for James, speaking on background. “What justice demands here is a real legal investigation that has teeth.”

The call comes one day after a second former aide to Cuomo publicly accused him of sexual harassment, telling the New York Times that the scandal-embroiled politician asked invasive personal questions that she interpreted as sexual advances.

Charlotte Bennett, 25, told the Times that the 63-year-old governor asked about her sex life, wondered whether she had slept with older men and told her that he would be interested in relationships with women in their 20s. She described her particular alarm at a conversation alone with the governor on June 5, according to the newspaper, and said she was quickly moved to another job after recounting it to Cuomo’s chief of staff.

Bennett’s accusations, which the Times said are supported by texts, come days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, detailed her sexual harassment allegations spanning several years against the governor, who has been under political fire from all sides in recent weeks. The three-term governor who became a Democratic star and familiar face in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic is facing bipartisan calls for investigations into both the harassment claims and his administration’s withholding of data on the virus’s full death toll in nursing homes.

Ex-aide alleges Cuomo sexually harassed her, kissed her and left her ‘nauseous’ at work

Cuomo, in a statement Saturday, said that Bennett “has every right to speak out” but that he was trying to act as a mentor and denied making advances toward her. He said he never intended “to act in any way that was inappropriate.”

“I believe the best way to get to the truth is through a full and thorough outside review and I am directing all state employees to comply with that effort,” the governor said.

The state’s Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker, both Democrats, said they support a “truly independent investigation.” And some from Cuomo’s own party demanded his resignation.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.) faces calls to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment and questions about how nursing home coronavirus deaths were reported. (Video: The Washington Post)

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D) tweeted to Cuomo, “You are a monster, and it is time for you to go.”

Cuomo denied sexually harassing Boylan when she first publicly accused him late last year, and his staff reiterated that this week when Boylan, a former special adviser and deputy secretary for economic development, published a lengthy online account that included images of emails and texts.

Bennett, who worked as an executive assistant and health policy adviser and contributed to New York’s coronavirus response, did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s inquiries Saturday evening.

“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” she told the Times. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Hired in 2019, she left the Cuomo administration in November, according to the Times. Bennett told the paper that she did not press for an investigation after disclosing her experience with Cuomo to other staffers and wished at the time to “move on.”

Garvey said in a statement Saturday that “Bennett’s concerns were treated with sensitivity and respect and in accordance with applicable law and policy.” Bennett was transferred, on her request, to “a position in which she had expressed a long-standing interest, and was thoroughly debriefed on the facts which did not include a claim of physical contact or inappropriate sexual conduct,” Garvey stated.

Bennett “expressed satisfaction” at the outcome, and no more action was taken, Garvey said, “consistent with Ms. Bennett’s wishes.”

Garvey said an investigation will be led by former federal judge Barbara Jones, a Democrat appointed by President Bill Clinton who went on to work for law firm Bracewell. “There are no limits on the scope of Judge Jones’ review,” Garvey added.

The announcement of an inquiry did not satisfy many lawmakers, however, as a second woman’s allegations prompted them to urge a serious outside review.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D) tweeted that he believed Boylan and Bennett while calling for a more independent investigation “immediately.” U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Cuomo should refer the issue to the state attorney general for her to appoint an investigator.

“If it’s proven to be true that the Governor abused his power by sexually harassing subordinates then he must resign,” tweeted Assembly member Pat Burke (D).

Bennett told the Times that she initially “got along really well” with the governor, finding his questions about her love life inappropriate at times but still viewing him as “a father figure.” Things shifted in the spring, however, she said. She told the paper that Cuomo seemed strangely focused in May on the fact that she had been sexually assaulted.

“When she came to me and opened up about being a sexual assault survivor and how it shaped her and her ongoing efforts to create an organization that empowered her voice to help other survivors, I tried to be supportive and helpful,” Cuomo said in his statement Saturday.

The most inappropriate questions came June 5 when she was with Cuomo in his office, Bennett told the Times. Initially asked to take dictation alongside another staffer, she said, she found herself alone with the governor, who began asking about her romantic life. The questions included whether she was in a relationship, whether she was monogamous and whether she had had sex with older men, according to her account to the Times.

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The newspaper said it reviewed texts with a friend from that day and the next in which Bennett said she was upset by the conversation, called it “the most explicit it could be” and described some of its substance.

Bennett told the Times that Cuomo also said “he’s fine with anyone above the age of 22.”

Bennett said that the two female Cuomo staffers to whom she brought her concerns were sympathetic and that she has no problem with their response. Neither woman immediately responded Saturday to The Post.

The ex-aide said Cuomo did not try to touch her inappropriately, according to the Times. The other former aide alleging harassment, Boylan, accused Cuomo last week of going “out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs” and giving her an unsolicited kiss as she tried to leave his office.

Boylan said she resigned from the Cuomo administration in fall 2018 after her relationship with top staffers deteriorated. She presented her alleged experiences as part of a workplace-wide problem, saying that other Cuomo staffers “normalized” the governor’s inappropriate behavior and that two other women had reached out to her after she went public with her account in December.

“One described how she lived in constant fear, scared of what would happen to her if she rejected the governor’s advances,” Boylan said, while another recalled the governor telling her to “warn staff members who upset him that their jobs could be at risk.”

Bennett tweeted about Boylan’s post on Medium the day it was published.

“For those wondering what it’s like to work for the Cuomo admin, read @LindseyBoylan’s story,” she said.

On Saturday evening, Boylan had also responded to Bennett’s account in the Times.

“You are not going to derail or destroy any more lives @NYGovCuomo,” she tweeted.