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Cuomo reverses course on sexual harassment investigation, offers apology

After former aides Charlotte Bennett and Lindsey Boylan came forward with sexual harassment allegations, the New York governor apologizes for anything that may ‘have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation’

Facing political pressure, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) on Feb. 28 apologized if anything he said may “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation." (Video: Reuters)

Facing fresh allegations of sexual harassment and mounting political pressure, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) on Sunday apologized if anything he said may “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” but denied he ever inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone in his office. He also reversed course and said he would refer an investigation of the accusations against him to the New York attorney general.

“To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to,” Cuomo said in a statement.

The decision came after White House officials, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a coalition of female state lawmakers and several members of Congress joined the growing number of activists and Democratic lawmakers calling for an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo by two former aides. Many said Cuomo’s requests for an independent review — first by a federal judge of his choosing and then by a lawyer in private practice — were insufficient. Some have demanded Cuomo resign, capping a tumultuous week for the governor facing several scandals.

The calls for Cuomo’s resignation came a day after a second former aide to the governor, Charlotte Bennett, publicly accused him of sexual harassment, telling the New York Times that he asked her invasive personal questions that she interpreted as sexual advances. Last week, another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, detailed allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo spanning several years.

Cuomo, in his statement Sunday, said he “never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm” and said he liked to tease people about their personal lives “to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.”

“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. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that,” Cuomo said.

Karen Hinton, a former press secretary to Cuomo, defended Bennett and accused the governor’s allies of remaining silent because they feared “the wrath of Andrew” if they spoke out.

“Charlotte Bennett didn’t lie or misinterpret what Andrew said,” Hinton told The Washington Post in a statement. “Even at her young age, she navigated the abuse in ways difficult for many women, especially in politics. Male egos dominate most endeavors, but in politics there’s a warlock’s brew of ego, entitlement, power, testosterone, and a bro culture that needs to stop.”

Some of Cuomo’s advisers were bracing for more revelations about his behavior toward subordinates and women, and he was persuaded to issue an apology, an adviser close to him said Sunday, after seeing 24 hours of severe fallout.

“We are in the bunker,” said one person close to the governor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

That fallout included severe pushback to Cuomo’s initial proposal to select a former federal judge to conduct a review of the accusations against him. Lawmakers quickly questioned the independence of such an inquiry, calling on the New York attorney general to step in. On Sunday, Cuomo senior adviser Beth Garvey said the office would instead ask 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 to avoid “even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics.”

That plan also backfired. James rejected the proposal, saying it was her responsibility as attorney general to investigate the allegations — but that she could only do so with a referral from the governor’s office. James called for a “truly independent investigation” that would grant her office subpoena power and the ability to call witnesses and obtain documents from the governor’s office, which was not the same as the review Cuomo had requested.

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

On Sunday evening, Cuomo’s office issued another statement, saying a private lawyer of James’s choosing would be “legally designated as a Special Independent Deputy Attorney General and granted all powers provided under Section 63(8) of the Executive Law.” James’s office responded by saying it expected to receive a referral with subpoena power to initiate the investigation but had not received any such letter as of press time Sunday.

“The referral would be made solely to the attorney general’s office. This is not a responsibility we take lightly. We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation,” James said in a statement.

A litany of state and city officials, including most of New York’s congressional delegation, have sided with the attorney general. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the “allegations should be thoroughly and independently investigated” and added that he supported James’s plan. At least two dozen female members of the New York State Legislature issued a joint statement Sunday calling for Cuomo to refer the matter to James’s office.

“We owe due respect to the women raising these concerns to treat their accusations seriously,” the statement read. “And, if their allegations prove credible, the Governor must be held accountable.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) described Boylan’s and Bennett’s accounts as “extremely serious and painful to read” and said the attorney general’s office should lead the investigation. The Sexual Harassment Working Group, a worker collective that advocates for a New York state government free of harassment, called on Cuomo to resign.

“Breaking from past practice in the face of such serious allegations is not acceptable,” Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) said in his own statement calling for Cuomo to refer the matter to James.

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

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for additional comment. The three-term governor, who became a Democratic star and familiar face in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, has been under political fire from all sides in recent weeks.

The sexual harassment allegations rippled beyond Albany and onto the Sunday morning political shows, another blow to Cuomo, who was widely seen to have had national political ambitions. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who has asked all of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees about sexual harassment during confirmation hearings, said she did not consider the investigation that Cuomo announced himself to be independent.

“The proper response for any of these kinds of allegations of reprehensible, inexcusable behavior is to listen mainly to the women who come forward, because it takes great courage for them to come forward, to listen to them and then to do the appropriate investigation and corroboration of the allegations and in the case of Gov. Cuomo, it seems to me that the New York attorney general would be the independent entity to conduct such an investigation,” Hirono said on ABC’s “This Week.”

In a statement Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “the women who have come forward with serious and credible charges against Governor Cuomo deserve to be heard and to be treated with dignity. The independent investigation must have due process and respect for everyone involved.” On CNN’s “State of the Union,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki also said there should be an independent review of the “serious” allegations against Cuomo.

“President Biden has been consistent that he believes that every woman should be heard, should be treated with respect and with dignity. Charlotte [Bennett] should be treated with respect and dignity. So should Lindsey [Boylan],” Psaki said, adding that it had been hard to read the stories as a woman.

Bennett, 25, told the Times that the 63-year-old governor asked about her sex life, wondered whether she had ever been with an older man 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 Times, and said she was quickly moved to another job after recounting it to Cuomo’s chief of staff.

“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, the special counsel and senior adviser to Cuomo, 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, at 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 said.

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

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.

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.

Andrew Cuomo, once touted as the ‘gold standard,’ finds his brand tarnished by multiple crises

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.”

In addition to the sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo is also facing bipartisan calls for an investigation into his administration’s withholding of data on the full death toll of the coronavirus in the state’s nursing homes. De Blasio, a Democrat who has frequently clashed with Cuomo, criticized the governor on both fronts Sunday.

“New Yorkers have seen detailed, documented accounts of sexual harassment, multiple instances of intimidation, and the admitted withholding of information on the deaths of over 15,000 people,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Questions of this magnitude cannot hang over the heads of New Yorkers as we fight off a pandemic and economic crisis.”

De Blasio called on the state legislature to revoke Cuomo’s emergency powers that overrule local control, as well as an investigation “completely independent of his office” into the sexual harassment accusations, saying, “2021 must be a year of progress and recovery. These efforts for transparency must be met.”

New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim, who earlier this month accused Cuomo of threatening to “destroy” him over Kim’s questions about the nursing homes scandal, piggybacked on de Blasio’s statement and called for Cuomo’s immediate resignation.

“Not tomorrow,” Kim tweeted. “Tonight.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.