DeRosa, the daughter of a powerful Albany lobbyist, has long played an influential role in Cuomo’s orbit, one that has only grown in recent years with the departures of other key aides, according to current and former administration officials.
Cuomo obliquely defended her in a video he posted in response to the investigation, saying women in positions of authority are treated worse because of their gender.
“A number of complaints target female managers, which smacks to me of a double standard,” the governor said, adding: “A strong male manager is respected and rewarded. A strong female manager is ridiculed and stereotyped. It is a double standard. It is sexist. And it must be challenged.”
DeRosa and her attorney declined to comment on the record about the report.
In recent weeks, after testifying to the investigators in the attorney general’s office, DeRosa posted comments on Twitter viewed by many Cuomo advisers as a preemptive defense of how she would be depicted.
“Haven’t you heard? Women aren’t allowed to be mad or fight — being tough and direct makes you a ‘bitch,’ ” she wrote in one tweet.
Holding the title of secretary to the governor, DeRosa is widely seen in the state as Cuomo’s enforcer — someone who engages in bare-knuckled political brawling and is known for delivering blistering tirades, according to current and former Cuomo advisers.
“No one is closer to Cuomo in state government,” said one longtime Cuomo aide, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid incurring DeRosa’s wrath. “If Melissa is screaming at you, the governor is screaming at you.”
The 38-year-old, who splits her time between Brooklyn and the Albany area, started as communications director in 2013 and became the governor’s top aide in 2017. She was key to helping craft Cuomo’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and assisted him in the writing of a book about his handling of the crisis, for which he was paid a $5 million advance. The role of state employees in the project is under investigation by New York state authorities.
DeRosa has regularly touted her work on behalf of women’s issues and serves as Cuomo’s “Chairwoman of the New York State Council on Women & Girls,” according to her biography. She has been featured in various publications, including in a 2020 Elle magazine profile, in which she discussed her pivotal role in the state’s coronavirus response.
“As long as you know what’s going on and feel like there’s a plan that you’re a part of, then you can galvanize, and survive, and endure, and get through it,” she told Elle. “If you don’t, that’s when you hit real crisis.”
In the report about the sexual harassment allegations issued by New York Attorney General Letitia James, DeRosa is alleged to have played a key role in trying to discredit one of Cuomo’s accusers, an effort that investigators said was unlawful retaliation. And despite the numerous claims that surface about his behavior with young female staffers, she is not depicted as going to lengths to investigate them.
In December, after former aide Lindsey Boylan tweeted that the governor was “one of the biggest abusers of all time,” DeRosa asked a former lawyer to the governor for Boylan’s “full file,” according to investigators.
Cuomo aides then distributed Boylan’s personnel record, which included internal complaints, to a number of reporters — actions that violated laws prohibiting retaliation against victims of sexual harassment, the report said.
In a recorded call between DeRosa, another Cuomo aide and two staffers at the Albany Times Union, an editor told the governor’s office that the newspaper did not want the Boylan file, the report noted, but it was sent to the outlet anyway.
DeRosa told investigators she decided to release the file after consulting with other staffers, making the decision that it was necessary because Boylan’s claims on Twitter about Cuomo had grown “more and more escalating.”
At another point, DeRosa circulated a letter to current and former staff members attacking Boylan and defending the governor, asking them to sign the letter, even as she privately harbored concerns about releasing it, according to the report.
She then sought to secure 50 women to sign a second letter — at Cuomo’s request — describing him as “strong, tough, respectful, inclusive and effective” after the allegations of harassment emerged.
“One woman, who worked in the Chamber at the time, told us that she declined to sign the statement because she did not believe the Chamber was an inclusive and supportive environment, and instead thought it was abusive and toxic,” the report says.
On another occasion, DeRosa allegedly asked a former staffer to call and record a state employee who had tweeted about Boylan supportively, looking to ferret out what further claims might emerge, according to the report.
The employee, identified in the report only as Kaitlin, had fielded uncomfortable comments about her appearance from Cuomo when she worked in the governor’s office, investigators said. She later transferred to a state agency.
The former staffer testified that she called Kaitlin — and surreptitiously recorded the conversation — at the insistence of DeRosa, who “was looking for information about if [Kaitlin] was working with Lindsey [Boylan] or if she had allegations against the Governor,” the report said.
The former staffer told investigators that she felt pressured by DeRosa’s constant calls and texts, and “was deeply regretful” after she made the call, the report stated.
DeRosa did not end up using the information from the recorded call because it was not to the advantage of the governor’s office, the report said.
“I did not think it went well,” DeRosa told investigators.
DeRosa also tried to squelch a news story scrutinizing whether state rules were changed so an inexperienced female state trooper could join Cuomo’s detail, the report found.
The trooper was repeatedly harassed by Cuomo, who touched her back and stomach, kissed her and made comments about her appearance, investigators said.
When a reporter from the Albany Times Union inquired about how the trooper joined the detail and whether she had sufficient experience, DeRosa grew angry.
She told investigators that she called the editor of the paper and yelled at him: “You guys are trying to reduce her hiring to being about looks. That’s what men do.”
In fact, investigators found, rules were broken: The trooper had been allowed to transfer onto the governor’s protective service detail even though she did not meet the three-year service requirement. Cuomo then proceeded “to engage in a pattern of sexually harassing conduct toward her,” the report found.
A person close to DeRosa said she believed at the time the story was sexist.
In March, as more allegations about the governor emerged publicly, DeRosa called Larry Schwartz, the state’s vaccine czar, and asked him to phone county executives and inquire whether they were going to be calling for the governor’s resignation, the report said.
Although Schwartz said he made clear to county officials that he was not making the calls in his role as vaccine czar, county leaders told investigators they were aware of his ability to influence the distribution of vaccines at a time when they were urgently needed. One described himself as stunned and unsettled by the conversation.
Two weeks later, DeRosa asked Schwartz to make another round of calls to county executives to see if their positions had changed.
“Ms. DeRosa testified that it did not cross her mind that the County Executives might feel some pressure in receiving a call from Mr. Schwartz, whose only role in the government at that time was the administration and distribution of vaccines,” the report stated.
Investigators also found that what they described as the office’s “toxic” culture was largely fueled by DeRosa and several other women. One woman said she feared being fired if she reported a bad interaction with the governor to DeRosa and another senior staffer.
On occasion, Cuomo would ask staffers how they were being treated by the “mean girls,” referring to DeRosa and others, the report said.
Cuomo denied using the term “mean girls,” the report said, but DeRosa said she had heard him say it and asked him to stop, saying she hated that term.
Even as she publicly defended the governor, there were times DeRosa castigated him behind the scenes, the report said.
DeRosa testified that after she learned that one aide, Charlotte Bennett, had complained about Cuomo’s conduct to state officials, she angrily confronted the governor while traveling with him in a car.
“I can’t believe that this happened,” DeRosa said she told Cuomo. “I can’t believe you put yourself in a situation where you would be having any version of this conversation.”
When the car stopped at a traffic light, she said, she got out and walked away.