New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) on Thursday answered questions about his treatment of women by telling a young female reporter that “harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable” — a statement that is at odds with New York state law.
Cuomo, who is under investigation for alleged sexual harassment, also told the reporter, Rebecca C. Lewis of City & State NY, that she could hypothetically accuse him of harassment after the news conference.
Cuomo’s remarks prompted condemnation from Charlotte Bennett, one of the former aides who has accused him, as well as the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a worker collective that advocates for a New York state government free of harassment.
In February, after Bennett went public with her accusations against Cuomo, the governor said in a statement that he “never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm.”
“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,” Cuomo said at the time.
At Thursday’s news conference in the Bronx, Lewis read Cuomo part of his statement on Bennett and asked the governor, “Do you acknowledge the fact that your intentions, according to the law, don’t matter in sexual harassment?”
Cuomo responded that he said he “never meant to make anyone feel uncomfortable” and that he “never said anything I believe is inappropriate.”
He then suggested a hypothetical situation involving the reporter herself.
“You can leave this press conference today and say, ‘Oh, the governor harassed me,’ ” Cuomo said. “You can say that. I would say, ‘I never said anything that I believed was inappropriate. I never meant to make you feel that way. You may hear it that way. You may interpret it at that way. And I respect that. And I apologize to you if you — I said something you think is offensive.’ ”
According to New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office, sexual harassment “is a form of gender-based discrimination” that can include the creation of “an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
“Sexual harassment may be verbal, visual and/or physical,” including “sexually offensive remarks or jokes,” according to James’s office. Cuomo himself signed sweeping sexual harassment legislation into law in 2019.
“According to the law, a harasser’s intention doesn’t matter,” Lewis noted at Thursday’s news conference.
Cuomo responded: “Harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable. That is not harassment. If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that is not harassment. That’s you feeling uncomfortable.”
Not long after the exchange, Bennett responded in a tweet.
“When @NYGovCuomo propositioned me for sex, he broke the law,” she said. “It is very simple: the issue is about his actions, it is not about my feelings. He broke the law (you know, the one he signed). Apologies don’t fix that, and neither do denials.”
The Sexual Harassment Working Group, which was formed by former state legislative staffers and has previously called on Cuomo to resign, said in a statement that “just because you believe you can’t make anyone ‘feel’ harassed by your actions, doesn’t make it legally true.”
“If the Governor tried that before a judge he’d get laughed out of court,” the group said.