A team appointed by the New York state attorney general probing the workplace conduct of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is seeking to determine whether laws banning retaliation against sexual harassment victims were broken.
And federal investigators have quizzed at least five former state Department of Health employees about the administration’s handling of the coronavirus in nursing homes and whether the office deliberately misled the federal government and the public about the number of deaths last year.
An initial state probe launched earlier this year after several women accused Cuomo of inappropriate behavior has mushroomed into a number of wide-ranging investigations in which at least a dozen current and former staffers have been interviewed, according to eight people familiar with the various inquiries who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the cases are ongoing.
The investigative pressure has put scrutiny on numerous aspects of the Cuomo administration and creates a potentially perilous environment for the governor, who is likely to launch a campaign for his fourth term in the coming months in advance of the 2022 election.
His poll numbers have dropped this year, but Cuomo still has around 50 percent approval with New York voters, with deep support among Democrats and city residents, according to Marist University’s most recent survey.
“The question is if there was a crime or not,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist in New York. “Voters are willing to forgive a lot of other things if they are happy with how things are going.”
Cuomo has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He has vigorously denied allegations of sexual harassment, saying he never touched any woman “inappropriately,” and he has defended his handling of the pandemic, rejecting claims that his administration misled the public.
Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, defended his office’s conduct as proper. The administration has said it is cooperating with the various inquiries.
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Attorney General Letitia James (D), and John Marzulli, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office of the Eastern District of New York, declined to comment.
Chris Cuomo took part in strategy calls advising his brother, the New York governor, on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations
Neither the FBI nor the state attorney general’s office has interviewed Cuomo or his top political advisers, according to people familiar with the situation. But some aspects of the probes appear to be intensifying.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that federal prosecutors have subpoenaed materials related to Cuomo’s book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” as part of their inquiry into the nursing home data.
And Charlotte Bennett, a former Cuomo aide who has alleged that he harassed her by making sexually inappropriate comments while she worked in the governor’s office, spent eight hours under oath with a team of lawyers from the attorney general’s office two weeks ago, according to Bennett attorney Debra Katz.
Katz declined to comment on the contents of the interview, saying she and her client are not permitted to discuss the specifics.
“It was clear to us they had done their homework and they are quite serious in the manner in which they are proceeding,” she said of the state investigators. “It certainly increased our comfort level that this is going to be a fulsome and robust investigation. They have clearly talked to witnesses, reviewed all the documents and are doing serious work.”
The attorney general’s inquiry is being led by lawyers at the firm Cleary Gottlieb, including former acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim.
One witness who recently spoke to state lawyers said they spent at least six hours asking questions that stretched beyond harassment, including queries about demeaning comments the governor allegedly made toward women, whether women were required to dress a certain way and whether senior aides in the office were complicit in covering up misconduct.
“They wanted to know exactly how the governor and his team ran the office,” the person said of the attorney general’s probe. “They are going through every single allegation that was made public and asking very detailed questions.”
Several witnesses said state investigators were particularly focused on the question of retaliation and whether the governor or any of the aides around him broke any laws or state rules in response to women coming forward.
Among the topics were calls and meetings that took place before the governor's office released the personnel file of one of his accusers, according to people familiar with the questions.
After Lindsey Boylan, a former state employee, first alleged harassment by the governor on Twitter late last year, he talked with advisers about how to handle the allegations, which he has denied, according to people familiar with the conversations. The governor’s office ultimately released to reporters some of Boylan’s personnel records, which showed complaints against her as a state employee, according to people familiar with the decision.
Boylan has said her personnel material was leaked in an effort to smear her.
Investigators have asked witnesses whether they knew of any planned or actual retaliation against other women who came forward or were considering coming forward, according to people familiar with their questions.
In a statement, Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor, said that “with certain limited exceptions, as a general matter, it is within a government entity’s discretion to share redacted employment records, including in instances when members of the media ask for such public information and when it is for the purpose of correcting inaccurate or misleading statements.”
Some people close to the governor fear the attorney general’s office will release a report that does not include criminal charges but lays out a portrait of an unprofessional office where women were judged on their looks and subordinates were subjected to demeaning comments. Former aides and advisers have described a toxic culture in which the governor unleashes searing verbal attacks on subordinates.
Cuomo officials have acknowledged that the atmosphere in the governor’s office is demanding but have denied there is a culture in which women are expected to dress a certain way.
Meanwhile, federal investigators have questioned witnesses about a state order on the handling of the coronavirus in nursing homes — asking who wrote it and whether any outside lobbyists or nongovernment officials had any role in it, according to three people familiar with the inquiry.
The questions have also centered on whether government officials deliberately misled federal authorities or lawmakers about the number of deaths in nursing homes, whether any documents were falsified with numbers they knew not to be correct, whether any of the deaths were hidden because of the book Cuomo was writing about his handling of the pandemic or whether anyone was told to conceal the truth about the extent of the deaths, the people familiar with the questioning said.
Additional interviews are scheduled to take place this month, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Cuomo’s office defended its conduct, saying that officials repeatedly made clear in public statements how the administration was counting nursing home deaths.
“There is currently a review by the Department of Justice, and we are cooperating fully with that inquiry,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Again, there was no undercount, as total deaths irrespective of location were always disclosed, and the methodology of how data was being presented was accurate.”
Separately, the public integrity unit of the attorney general’s office has begun investigating how the governor secured a $5 million book deal, whether any state employees were forced to volunteer to help with the book during state time and whether any government decisions were affected by the lucrative arrangement.
Several former administration officials, including some involved in the book process, said they were unaware of the amount Cuomo was being paid for the book.
“Any state official that advised the governor on the book was voluntary, in compliance with state ethics laws and done on their personal time,” Azzopardi said in a statement. “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project — to the extent an aide did something like printing out a document, it appears incidental.”
State investigators have also expressed interest in whether the governor deliberately secured priority coronavirus testing services for family members, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.
As The Washington Post and other news organizations reported, Cuomo’s relatives and other well-connected New Yorkers were among those given preferential treatment at state coronavirus testing centers. State troopers were on standby to rush their samples to a lab to be expedited, and those with priority status got results within hours or a day, compared with the wait of up to a week that other New Yorkers faced at the time.
State officials have disputed that people were given special treatment because of ties to Cuomo, saying priority testing was available to many New York residents involved in the state’s pandemic response, as well as members of the general public, such as those who were at high risk.
New accounts detail how New York health officials were told to prioritize coronavirus testing of people connected to Andrew Cuomo
Separately, the State Assembly is running its own multipronged inquiry into the Cuomo administration that is examining the allegations of harassment, the governor’s book deal, potential improprieties related to construction of a bridge in New York and the administration’s handling of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.
As part of that, a law firm hired by an assembly committee has interviewed some former state officials and has asked for testimony from at least some of the seven women who accused the governor of misconduct. However, some of the women, including Bennett, are not participating in the assembly probe, because they are wary about how it is being conducted, according to people familiar with their views.
That investigation is likely to last through much of the summer, according to people familiar with the situation.