The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York Assembly moves forward with Cuomo impeachment inquiry as the governor digs in, refusing to step down

New York Assemblyman Charles D. Lavine, head of the judiciary committee, answers questions during a news conference.
New York Assemblyman Charles D. Lavine, head of the judiciary committee, answers questions during a news conference. (Cindy Schultz/Reuters)
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New York Assembly leaders pledged Monday to finish the initial stage of their impeachment inquiry of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the next several weeks, while fallout from the state attorney general’s damning report on his behavior grew to further envelop two organizations once considered his allies.

Still, Cuomo (D) remains determined to resist growing pressure on him to resign, according to people familiar with his state of mind.

Seven people in Cuomo’s orbit said Monday that they do not think he can survive this crisis, but none of them expect him to acknowledge that yet. One adviser said the three-term governor was adopting a strategy of seeking to “buy time” so he can make a case to the legislature that his actions do not warrant removal from office.

The adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said Cuomo is unwilling to listen to a chorus of calls from advisers urging him to step down. He thinks he can disprove claims in the report issued last week by Attorney General Letitia James finding that he sexually harassed 11 women.

“He is in denial,” one longtime adviser said. “It would be a waste of time to even try to talk to him at this point.”

In public, Cuomo cast himself as an advocate of women. In private, women say, he was harassing them at the same time.

Monday saw signs of escalating repercussions for Cuomo allies, as the advocacy groups Human Rights Campaign and Time’s Up contended with mounting internal tensions over the involvement of their leaders in the governor’s efforts to discredit one of his accusers.

Journalists, analysts and politicians follow the scandal facing New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) on WAMC's public radio show, "The Roundtable." (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

Roberta Kaplan, the chairwoman of Time’s Up, an organization that advocates for survivors of sexual assault and harassment, resigned amid a backlash from supporters of the group who expressed dismay about the role she played.

The boards of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights group, also launched an independent investigation of the organization’s president, Alphonso David, for his role advising Cuomo’s staff in the same effort.

The developments followed the abrupt resignation Sunday night of Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, the person most closely involved in coordinating his response to the allegations. A person close to DeRosa, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe her thinking, said that the longtime Cuomo adviser did not think the governor could survive politically and that she had reached a “breaking point.”

Several advisers close to Cuomo said DeRosa’s resignation had struck like an “atomic bomb,” in the words of one of them.

Melissa DeRosa, top aide to Cuomo, resigns in wake of state attorney general’s report

Cuomo, who is ensconced in the governor’s mansion in Albany and has not been coming to the office, is left with few advisers. Rich Azzopardi, his longtime spokesman, has said he plans to stay in his post. The governor also continues to confer with longtime adviser Charlie King, a lobbyist at the public strategy firm Mercury, as well as his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, according to people familiar with the situation.

Cuomo attorney Rita Glavin has called the attorney general’s report biased and incomplete, and has challenged its conclusion that 11 women were harassed, noting that some were not state employees.

Another accuser went public Monday, as Brittany Commisso, one of Cuomo’s executive assistants, described in a television interview what she said were escalating episodes of unwelcome sexual advances by the governor.

Commisso, who has filed a criminal complaint against Cuomo, told CBS News that his actions turned a “dream job” into a “nightmare.”

State Democratic officials were blunt about the governor’s perilous standing.

“To just walk away, would, I think, be the noble thing to do,” state Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes said in an interview, calling the conduct described in the attorney general’s report “deplorable.”

Absent such a move by Cuomo, the Assembly is moving forward with its impeachment inquiry. The judiciary committee has scheduled private meetings to review evidence against the governor on Friday and Aug. 23 and announced plans to hold public hearings about the legal grounds for impeachment and the dynamics of sexual harassment shortly afterward.

Committee Chairman Charles D. Lavine said Monday that he planned to oversee an independent review of the evidence against Cuomo that goes beyond the claims of unlawful harassment and retaliation contained in the attorney general’s report.

They include allegations that Cuomo used state resources to write a book, gave preferential access to family members for coronavirus testing and mishandled the pandemic response at nursing homes in the state.

“I would not want to rely solely on the report of the attorney general to make a case,” Lavine said at a news conference in Albany. “We have to make sure we examine the evidence that underlies the attorney general’s report.”

Both Lavine and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie said they had not had any recent communication with Cuomo.

“I believe that this is going to be dealt with in weeks and not months,” Heastie said. “And you want to make sure that this is a process where no one can say they were treated unfairly.”

Democratic Assemblyman Thomas J. Abinanti, a member of the judiciary committee, said in an interview that the panel was determined to resolve the matter “without any delay.” But to complete the impeachment process means reviewing hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, more than 100 depositions of witnesses, the exhaustive attorney general’s report and the work of the committee’s own outside counsel, he noted.

“We’re in the age of instant gratification,” Abinanti said, “but not everything can be resolved instantly.”

Republican Assemblyman Keith Brown said there was no divide between Republicans and Democrats on the committee. “A great deal of consensus was in expediting the impeachment process as fast as we can,” he said.

Cuomo can be impeached by a majority vote of the Assembly and would have to immediately relinquish the power of his office, pending a trial in the state Senate that would include members of the state’s highest court, according to James A. Gardner, a law professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

A tally last week by the Associated Press found that 86 of the Assembly’s 150 members have said publicly or told the news service that they favor initiating the impeachment process if the governor does not quit.

Cuomo’s strong-arm tactics, arrogance and intimidating manner have alienated many within his own party, fellow Democrats said.

“He does not have many friends or allies even before this. A lot of people just don’t like him,” Peoples-Stokes said, adding, “I personally don’t care for the governor, but I do believe in the Golden Rule — I would want myself to have an opportunity to have due process, whether people like me or not.”

After the Assembly acts, Cuomo could be permanently removed from office and possibly banned from serving in state government by a vote of two-thirds of those who sit for the Senate trial.

Meanwhile, the two boards that govern the Human Rights Campaign announced Monday morning in an email to staff that they now supported an investigation into the actions of David, a former Cuomo adviser, who worked with the governor’s aides to respond to one of his accusers. Last week, after his role became public, they announced their full support for David and went public with a five-year contract extension for him.

“The last few days have been difficult here at the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation,” board chairs Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson wrote in the email. “The HRC and HRC Foundation Boards of Directors take your questions very seriously — we want them answered too.”

How Cuomo’s office sought help from prominent liberal advocates as it pushed to discredit an accuser

James’s report found that David had helped revise a letter meant to undermine the claims of former Cuomo aide Lindsey Boylan. After some revisions, he read the letter to other people in an effort to gather signatures. He also gave the governor’s aides a memo about an unrelated personnel matter involving Boylan, which he had kept after leaving state government, the report stated. Boylan’s personnel file was later shared by Cuomo aides with reporters.

David — a onetime lawyer in the governor’s office who last week called for his former boss to resign — told The Washington Post last week that he had sought to remove problematic parts of the letter and shared the contents of the document only after those changes had been made. He said he was legally required to share the memo about Boylan he had in his possession because of his prior work as an attorney for the governor.

In their email to staff on Monday, Cox and Patterson said they had hired the law firm Sidley Austin to conduct an internal investigation over the next 30 days that “will include consideration of whether Alphonso David’s actions aligned with HRC’s mission and values, as well as with professional and ethical standards.”

David also sent an email to staff endorsing the investigation into his role.

“Multiple inaccuracies have been circulating and therefore this definitive review is important,” David wrote. “I deeply empathize with all survivors and understand how these types of events can perpetuate their own traumas. What the Governor is accused of doing is reprehensible and antithetical to our values and all that we fight for.”

Separately, Kaplan, the chairwoman of Time’s Up, stepped down from that organization amid a growing backlash about the role she played consulting with Cuomo staff on the same effort.

Kaplan’s resignation followed an open letter posted on Medium by a group of sexual abuse survivors, who called for Time’s Up to launch its own third-party investigation of the role of Kaplan and the group’s president, Tina Tchen, in the effort by Cuomo’s aides to undermine the credibility of Boylan.

“Instead of helping survivors remain at the center of our own stories, we find out in the press that you were consulted by abusers to aid them in victim-blaming and undermining our ability to come forward,” the letter reads.

The letter also expresses concern that Time’s Up board member Hilary Rosen had characterized Kaplan’s and David’s involvement with Cuomo’s office as an example of “no good deed goes unpunished” in a statement last week to The Post. Rosen said the two leaders were trying to persuade Cuomo to tell the truth and not attack their accusers.

Kaplan is described in the attorney general’s report as conferring with Tchen at the request of a Cuomo adviser about the appropriateness of the letter Cuomo’s aides were preparing to release. The letter pushed back on Boylan by, among other things, attacking her political motivations and denying the legitimacy of her claims.

DeRosa told investigators that Kaplan was “fine” with the document with some changes.

Both Kaplan and Tchen told The Post last week that they conveyed to Cuomo’s office that he could not do anything that would contribute to shaming an accuser. Kaplan’s law office represented DeRosa during the attorney general’s investigation.

On Monday, Kaplan cited that representation in her decision to resign from the Time’s Up board, which was first reported by the New York Times.

“I cannot offer the degree of transparency about my firm’s matters now being demanded, since that would be contrary to my responsibilities as a lawyer,” she wrote. “I therefore have reluctantly come to the conclusion that an active litigation practice is no longer compatible with serving on the Board at Times Up at this time and I hereby resign.”

Tchen and the board issued a statement Monday saying they would work with survivor communities to address the “lack of trust” that has developed. “We hold ourselves accountable,” the statement said. “The events of the last week have made it clear that our process should be evaluated and we intend to do just that.”

The statement did not specify whether there would be an independent investigation or whether any staff members found to have “supported perpetrators of harm” would be removed, as the survivor group demanded in the Medium post.

Alison Turkos, who wrote the Medium post calling for changes at Time’s Up, said in an interview Monday afternoon that the group’s response so far had been “horrifying.”

“Their response does not do justice to the things that we asked, which I think were plainly laid out for them,” Turkos said. “Accountability is an act of love, and if we cannot hold the people that we love and the people that we work with accountable, what are we doing?”

Gup reported from Albany. John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted a portion of an email that Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David sent staff Monday. He said that a “definitive review” is important, not a “definitive role.” This article has been corrected.