The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has denied allegations of harassment detailed in a report from the state attorney general. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

On Aug. 12, 2019, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law that made it easier for women in his state to win claims of sexual harassment at work, a problem he described as an “ongoing, persistent culture” of abuse that needed to change.

“Let’s honor all the women who have suffered this pain and endured this humiliation,” he said in a video distributed that day by his office. “Let’s honor the women who have had the courage to come forward and tell their story.”

The next day, according to a state investigation, he asked a female state trooper driving him to an event, “Why don’t you wear a dress?”

It was the first of several harassing comments or unwelcome physical acts the Democratic governor would make over the subsequent month and a half, according to a 165-page report released Tuesday by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Cuomo allegedly touched and then “kind of” grabbed at the area between the buttocks and thigh of a state employee while being photographed after a speech. He touched the bare back of a wedding guest during another photo opportunity and said, “Wow, you’re aggressive,” cupped her face in his hands and asked to kiss her when the young woman objected. He ran the palm of his left hand across the stomach of the same state trooper, the report said, prompting her to tell investigators later that she felt “completely violated because to me, like that’s between my chest and my privates.”

The gaping disparity between Cuomo’s publicly declared commitment to stamping out abuse and harassment and his alleged private behavior has emerged as one of the most staggering aspects of a scandal that seems on track to lead to an early end to his governorship. An examination of the report’s findings compared with Cuomo’s contemporaneous public statements reveals a leader who appeared completely to detach his personal behavior from his public persona.

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

Over and over again, the investigation found, he behaved in private exactly in the manner that he repeatedly condemned in public — making lewd comments to young women, kissing aides on the mouth, having others sit on his lap and repeatedly touching women inappropriately. Some of the alleged harassment happened in chance encounters: An employee of a utility company said that when she went to shake his hand on a rope line after an event, the governor traced his fingers along a logo printed across the chest of her shirt, leaving her feeling “profoundly humiliated.”

Through it all, the governor publicly maintained the posture of a crusader for women’s rights, leading what he called a “societal change” in the way powerful men treated women. His administration, according to the attorney general’s office, broke the state’s own laws that the governor had hailed by retaliating against a victim. In all, he harassed 11 women in violation of state and federal laws, the investigation found.

“You will never solve a problem in life you are unwilling to admit, and denial is not a strategy,” Cuomo said at a Sept. 18, 2019, news conference with leaders of the advocacy group Time’s Up including actresses Julianne Moore, Mira Sorvino and Michelle Hurd. At that event, he signed legislation extending the statute of limitations for rape in New York state.

“We have denied this for too long,” he said.

A spokesman for Cuomo referred a reporter to previous statements by the governor’s office disputing the findings of the attorney general’s report. A Cuomo attorney has called the probe biased and incomplete.

“I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances. I am 63 years old. I’ve lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am, and that’s not who I have ever been,” Cuomo said in the past week.

But feminist activists and advocates of sexual abuse survivors who spent years praising his commitment to women’s issues say they feel betrayed. One former Cuomo aide, Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, is fending off internal calls for his resignation after he involved himself in an effort to push back against one of Cuomo’s accusers. The leaders of Time’s Up, the high-wattage group that supports victims of sexual harassment and abuse and worked with Cuomo’s office, have said they are outraged that they were used by the governor’s advisers to justify that effort.

Even after the attorney general’s damning report was released Tuesday, Cuomo continued to claim that he was a champion for women, citing his support for senior female managers who were found by the attorney general’s office to be complicit in an unlawful effort to retaliate against one of his accusers — an effort that included releasing the accuser’s personnel file to reporters and circulating a draft of a letter that attacked her credibility.

Cuomo report spotlights role of top aide Melissa DeRosa in trying to contain sexual harassment crisis

Cuomo’s lawyer Rita Glavin argued Friday that the governor installed the female state trooper on his protective detail in an effort to diversify the ranks — although she lacked the requisite experience for the post. (Glavin declined to comment on the trooper’s claims of harassment, saying Cuomo would address them directly at some point.)

The governor also used his professed commitment to protect abuse survivors as an excuse for behavior toward Charlotte Bennett, a survivor of sexual assault who worked as an executive assistant for Cuomo in 2019 and 2020.

“I know too well the manifestations of sexual assault trauma and the damage that it can do in the aftermath. I was trying to make sure she was working her way through it the best she could,” Cuomo said in a recorded statement Tuesday. “Charlotte, I want you to know that I am truly and deeply sorry. I brought my personal experience into the workplace, and I shouldn’t have done that. I was trying to help.”

The attorney general’s report described Cuomo’s telling Bennett in private settings over months of interactions that he was “lonely” and “wanted to be touched.” The report said he asked her whether she had been with older men, asked her repeatedly about the size of his hands, inquired whether she was monogamous, told her he would date someone her age and repeated the phrase “you were raped” to her in a way she described in a contemporaneous text message as “out of a horror movie.”

Cuomo denies making several of those comments and claims that she misheard or misinterpreted others. State investigators described Bennett as credible.

“There is a very twisted view, a very twisted psychology with men like Cuomo, who think they are helping women,” said Debra Katz, a lawyer who represents Bennett. “He passes the most far-reaching legislation in the United States protecting women from sexual harassment, but the way he comported himself behind closed doors in the workplace is classic sexual harassment.”

Bennett called Cuomo’s apology “fake.”

“He sexually harassed me,” she told “CBS Evening News.” “I am not confused. It is not confusing. I am living in reality, and it’s sad to see that he’s not.”

Touting feminist credentials

Cuomo’s embrace of feminist causes as an elected official has been long-running and often brought clear political benefit. From his first term as governor, he made promoting women central to his administration, with a 10-point “Women’s Equality Agenda,” including new protections against sexual harassment, that became central to his 2014 reelection campaign.

“I am not going to leave this earth,” Cuomo said at one campaign event in that election cycle “until this state makes the statement that my three daughters are equal to any three boys anywhere.”

He founded the Women’s Equality Party, or W.E.P., in advance of his 2014 reelection, when he faced a challenge from a female candidate, Zephyr Teachout, who was seeking support from the similar sounding Working Families Party, or W.F.P.

The effort allowed Cuomo’s name to appear next to the words Women’s Equality on the New York ballot. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who is poised to take over as governor if Cuomo leaves office, used the brand to stump with Cuomo that year, driving around the state in a bus called the “Women’s Equality Express” with a pink stripe along its side.

She has called Cuomo’s behavior “repulsive” but has not called for him to resign.

Others involved in the 2014 outreach to female voters, including Christine Quinn, a former speaker of the New York City Council, have expressed horror at what they have since learned and have demanded that Cuomo leave office.

“I feel completely misled, really duped. I believed very sincerely that Andrew M. Cuomo was one of the best allies women and girls had in this county,” Quinn said. “I feel like he really played a lot of us.”

The attorney general’s report documents alleged incidents of harassment by Cuomo before and immediately after the 2014 campaign.

One of his assistants at the time, Ana Liss, told investigators that the governor addressed her regularly as “sweetheart” or “darling,” valued her more for her appearance than abilities, kissed her hand and cheek inappropriately, and slid his hand around her lower waist.

“Ms. Liss testified the Governor never asked permission to touch her, and his conduct was unwelcome,” investigators wrote, calling her testimony credible. “She felt that she would not say no to the Governor, in any event, because saying no could result in being ostracized or fired.”

The governor testified that he did not remember her.

Maria T. Vullo, a supporter of Cuomo’s for two decades who led the state Department of Financial Services between 2016 and 2019, used to introduce the governor at Women’s Equality events.

Vullo said that most of those who worked for the governor knew it was a “toxic” atmosphere but that she never knew he harassed women. She says she feels duped.

“I am extremely disappointed and angry, because we believed in what he was trying to do,” she said. “I felt he was committed to the women’s equality agenda. We put together a 10-point plan. We did sexual harassment reforms. I thought he was really serious about that. And now he sexually harasses all these women and claims it isn’t so?”

Going after Kavanaugh

By the fall of 2018, Cuomo had fashioned himself into an even more prominent public champion of sexual assault survivors by turning his attention to the battle over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

He began publicly railing against Republicans for pushing the nomination through despite an accusation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh dating from high school.

“To cheapen and ridicule the pain of a woman who suffers a sexual assault is disgraceful. Republicans are making a mockery of these hearings,” Cuomo tweeted on Sept. 25, 2018. It was one of a number of statements he posted on Twitter about the sexual misconduct allegation against Kavanaugh.

“This is not just about Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment, it’s about justice in the deepest sense,” he continued in that tweet.

That was around the time the governor was harassing Lindsey Boylan, who worked as an economic development aide to the governor and a state agency, the attorney general’s investigation found.

Near the end of her tenure in the governor’s office in 2018, Boylan was at the Executive Mansion and Cuomo’s dog began scratching at her in the foyer.

“Well, if I was the dog, I would mount you, too,” Cuomo told her, according to her testimony.

On another day around the same time, at a separate meeting in Cuomo’s New York City office, Boylan said the governor kissed her on the lips without her permission at the end of a private meeting.

Cuomo denied both incidents, as well as other earlier interactions that Boylan described.

As far back as 2016, investigators found, he had been comparing her appearance favorably to a woman he had dated, a claim backed up by a witness and a contemporaneous email.

Investigators for the attorney general’s office found that the factual allegations Boylan made were “credible and supported by the rest of the evidence in our investigation.”

Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa — who chairs the administration’s Council on Girls and Women — repeatedly questioned the accounts of Boylan and other women who accused the governor of sexual misconduct, according to emails and other advisers.

When Boylan went public with her claims on Twitter in December, DeRosa and other aides took part in an effort to discredit her, releasing her personnel file and circulating a draft of a letter impugning her credibility, the investigation found.

DeRosa consulted with attorney Roberta Kaplan, a co-founder of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, about the letter Cuomo wanted to release about Boylan, the report found. Kaplan is described in the report as conferring with Tina Tchen, the group’s president. The letter was not released, but the attorney general’s office said that its circulation was unlawful because it could have intimidated others.

Tchen, who denies sanctioning any attack on Cuomo’s accusers, said she was angry that her organization was being used to justify the governor’s tactics.

“You cannot make any attempt to attack or discredit a person who has come forward with allegations,” Tchen said recently.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said his advisers believed it was not a violation of the law to “correct the record.” In a 13-page letter, Cuomo’s lawyers disputed the attorney general’s conclusion that the actions taken in the Boylan case were illegal retaliation.

“With respect to legal questions relating to how a complaint should be handled, or whether personnel records could be provided to the public, Ms. DeRosa consulted with and relied upon advice of experienced counsel,” Sean Hecker, DeRosa’s lawyer, said in a statement. Hecker and Kaplan are partners at the same law firm.

Boylan left state employment on Sept. 27, 2018, after unrelated personnel complaints about her work. That day, Cuomo released a statement about Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, calling on President Donald Trump to require his nominee to take a lie-detector test.

“I believe Dr. Ford’s testimony is very compelling. Only a political skeptic could find a reason to disbelieve her. What is her possible motive to lie?” Cuomo said in the news release. “Here is one basic fact that badly hurts Judge Kavanaugh: Why won’t he take a polygraph? Dr. Ford did.”

The lawyer representing another Cuomo accuser, an executive assistant who claimed the governor groped her breast in a private moment at the Executive Mansion in 2020, told reporters last month that his client wanted Cuomo to take a polygraph test, which she has said she will take, as well.

Cuomo’s attorney Rita Glavin characterized the matter as “press ploys” to the Albany Times Union and declined to say whether Cuomo would take the test.

Glavin did not respond to a request for comment.

Allegations of escalating misconduct

The end of 2019 brought another round of announcements from Cuomo’s office about his agenda to help women. He signed legislation launching an initiative to study the number of women on corporate boards in the state and proposed a law that would close a loophole that made it harder to convict rape suspects if their alleged victims were voluntarily intoxicated.

At the same time, behind the scenes, the governor was escalating his harassment of the executive assistant who has alleged that he would later grope her breast, according to investigators.

The Post’s Philip Bump analyzes what might happen to New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) following an investigation of sexual harassment allegations. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In late 2019, the first day she was working alone with him at the governor’s mansion, Cuomo gave her a private tour. At one point, when they were looking at photographs, he “almost pushed his hand along” her buttocks, the report said, although it was unclear whether it was intentional.

During the tour, he pointed to a photograph in the living room of an attractive woman wearing a tight red dress and said something like, “I remember her, she was a real … firecracker,” she told investigators.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, while she was assisting him in the mansion, the governor asked to take a selfie with her. As she held up the camera, he moved his hand and rubbed her buttocks for about five seconds, she testified.

The executive assistant was shaking so much that the initial selfies were blurry, the report said. At Cuomo’s urging, they then sat down and took another selfie, with his hands around her waist. He told her to send the photo to another executive assistant who was a friend of hers — but not to share it with anyone else, the report said.

Cuomo described the executive assistant to investigators as “an affectionate person” who was the “initiator of hugs.” He said he was “more in the reciprocal business” because he did not want “anyone to feel awkward about anything.”

Three days later, Cuomo announced a plan to amend the state’s Equal Rights Amendment to make sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and other defining characteristics protected classes under the law.

The governor emphasized his commitment to the policy in a statement, saying: “In New York, we believe in full equality for every person — period.”