Two male aides who worked for Cuomo in the New York governor’s office say he routinely berated them with explicit language, making comments such as calling them “pussies” and saying, “You have no balls.”
And three women, all of whom worked in the governor’s office as young staffers in recent years, say Cuomo quizzed them about their dating lives. They say they did not view the encounters as propositions, but rather as part of an office culture they believed was degrading to young women.
The newest accounts of Cuomo’s workplace behavior by former aides in interviews with The Washington Post come after several women have publicly accused the New York governor of inappropriate personal comments or unwelcome physical contact. The allegations have engulfed one of the country’s top Democratic officials in crisis and put a sharp focus on the workplace culture he has fostered during his three decades in public office.
What Cuomo has touted as an “aggressive” style goes far beyond that behind the scenes, according to more than 20 people who have worked with him from the 1990s to the present. Many former aides and advisers described to The Post a toxic culture in which the governor unleashes searing verbal attacks on subordinates. Some said he seemed to delight in humiliating his employees, particularly in group meetings, and would mock male aides for not being tough enough.
The Post reached out to more than 150 former and current Cuomo staffers, stretching back to his time at HUD in Washington. Most did not respond. Among those who did, the majority spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they said they still fear his wrath and his power to destroy careers.
In a statement, Peter Ajemian, Cuomo’s director of communications, vehemently denied Hinton’s account of her encounter with Cuomo in a hotel room.
“This did not happen,” he said. “Karen Hinton is a known antagonist of the Governor’s who is attempting to take advantage of this moment to score cheap points with made up allegations from 21 years ago. All women have the right to come forward and tell their story — however, it’s also the responsibility of the press to consider self-motivation. This is reckless.”
Rich Azzopardi, a senior Cuomo adviser, said in a separate statement that in his eight years in the governor’s office, he “never heard him use coarse language” as attributed to him by former male aides.
Ajemian said the governor “works day and night” for the people of New York.
“There is no secret these are tough jobs, and the work is demanding, but we have a top tier team with many employees who have been here for years, and many others who have left and returned,” he said in his statement. “The Governor is direct with employees if their work is sub-par because the people of New York deserve nothing short of excellence. ”
In a news conference Wednesday, Cuomo denied touching women “inappropriately” but apologized if his interactions with women caused offense or pain. He pleaded for the public to wait for the results of a state attorney general-led probe into the claims by two former staffers who said he sexually harassed them.
“I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said. “I never, ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone pain.”
Former aides said they were infuriated by Cuomo’s attempt to minimize what they described as a pervasive effort to intimidate staff.
In response to the denial of her account, Hinton said “attacking the accuser is the classic playbook of powerful men trying to protect themselves.” She said watching the news conference “drove me crazy” and Cuomo knew better, saying he was regularly flirtatious with women, what she viewed as part of a broader effort to manipulate those around him. “I really thought the flirt wasn’t about having sex,” she said. “It was about controlling the relationship.”
Added one woman who worked in his Albany office when she was in her 20s: “What this is is a systemic, intentional, hostile, toxic workplace environment that . . . perpetuates abusive treatment of people who don’t have power or resources.”
Longtime staffers described what they said is a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to Cuomo: charming one moment, raging with anger the next. With gallows humor, former Cuomo aides joke about their therapy bills from absorbing his rampages for so many years, according to three former administration officials.
“You didn’t know which Andrew you were going to get,” said one woman who had worked at HUD as a political appointee during Cuomo’s tenure as head of the agency.
She recalled one incident of Cuomo yelling at her in his office so loudly that colleagues came to check on her well-being. She said she cannot recall why he was so upset or the words he used but said: “I remember thinking it was pretty vicious and over the top, like if I had killed somebody. Not even my own parents had ever yelled at me the way he yelled at me.”
A demanding leader
As the eldest son of three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo (D), Andrew M. Cuomo emerged as his own political force in the 1990s, when he was appointed in 1997 by President Bill Clinton to a Cabinet position leading HUD after a stint as an assistant secretary at the agency.
Cuomo was viewed as an exacting leader whose drive and aggressiveness made things happen — from creating new local “community builder” positions at a time congressional Republicans demanded the agency downsize to bringing the first sitting president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to visit Indian Country.
Former political and career staff described Cuomo as a micromanager who frequently berated staff members publicly over small mistakes or disagreements. But they respected his work ethic. When staff members worked late into the night on projects, Cuomo would be there alongside them.
Jacqueline Pata, Cuomo’s deputy assistant secretary for Native American programs at HUD, said she had a close, strong working relationship with Cuomo for two years, during which she traveled with him to remote regions of Alaska. Pata said she never observed any inappropriate behavior, but she said he was demanding of aides and occasionally yelled when he was frustrated.
“He had great expectations, but everybody was clear about what those expectations were,” she said.
Other agency staff recall his outbursts differently. A HUD political appointee who worked closely with Cuomo told The Post that during meetings, staffers avoided the seats next to him, as though physical distance would somehow protect them from his wrath. She recalled that she saw women dissolve into tears and one man’s face turn beet red after Cuomo dressed them down.
“People were terrified of him,” the former appointee said. “You couldn’t forget it. Anyone who tells you they don’t remember is not telling the truth. Everybody got their turn, including me.”
He had contentious disputes with senior aides such as Hinton, who served as a communications official at the agency for 4½ years before moving in 1999 to California with her then-husband, who was there on a military deployment.
Hinton and Cuomo had a bad fight before she left the full-time position at the agency that ended in a screaming fit, she said, with each hurling profanities at the other.
Hinton said they argued frequently but inevitably made peace. So when Cuomo made a December 2000 trip to Los Angeles to promote a HUD program to rehabilitate and resell foreclosed homes, she said she agreed to help arrange press coverage as a paid consultant for the agency.
The day went well, she said, with good media turnout. In the evening, Cuomo went back to his room in the hotel where they were both staying to eat dinner, she said.
Then she got a phone call from the HUD secretary. “Why don’t you come to my room and let’s catch up?” she recalled him saying.
Hinton — then 42, around the same age as Cuomo — said she initially did not think the request was unusual. Perhaps Cuomo wanted to smooth things over after her rocky departure and discuss press work for the following day, she thought.
But then Cuomo said: “Don’t let Clarence see you,” referring to Clarence Day, his longtime head of security, who regularly stood in the hallway outside Cuomo’s hotel suites. “Clarence will block any woman from coming into my room,” Cuomo said, according to her recollection. “He is very protective and didn’t want to raise any eyebrows.”
Hinton, who said she had known Day for years, said she found the request strange. But she said she nevertheless went upstairs to his room.
Day was at Cuomo’s door when she arrived. “He said, ‘Hey Karen, it’s good to see you,’ ” she recalled. (Day died at age 89 last October.)
When she went in, Hinton said the lights in the hotel room were dimmed. “I paused for a second,” she said. “Why are the lights so low? He never keeps the lights this low.”
She said she and Cuomo sat on opposite couches and talked about HUD, their time together in Washington and their lives, particularly her marriage at the time, which she said was struggling.
Cuomo asked whether she planned to leave her husband and a number of other personal questions, Hinton said.
“I said, ‘Well it’s tough out here in California. I miss Washington. I don’t connect with this place,’ ” she recalled.
Cuomo told her they needed to stay friends and help each other going forward, Hinton said.
At some point, Hinton said, she grew self-conscious that she had talked so much about her personal life and her marriage. She decided to leave. “I stand up and say, ‘It’s getting late, I need to go,’ ” she said. Cuomo stood up, walked over and embraced her, she recalled.
She described it as “very long, too long, too tight, too intimate.” “It’s not just a hug,” she added. Hinton said she pulled away.
“He pulls me back for another intimate embrace,” she said. “I thought at that moment it could lead to a kiss, it could lead to other things, so I just pull away again, and I leave.”
A decision to speak out
When asked if she viewed the encounter as harassment, Hinton did not explicitly describe it that way but said there was a “power dynamic” at play, even though she was a consultant at the time, not an employee. “It was the same to me,” she said, adding that she was concerned about “the personal and professional problems that could have been created.” She described Cuomo’s move as a “power play” for “manipulation and control.”
She said the two never discussed the episode. They remained in touch and socialized over the years, she said. Her second husband, Howard Glaser, worked for Cuomo at HUD and served as a top deputy to Cuomo in the governor’s mansion for five years.
In Cuomo’s 2014 memoir, “All Things Possible,” Cuomo thanks Hinton in the acknowledgments, writing that she is part of “my extended team, my second family.”
Since she worked for him at HUD, Hinton has publicly been both complimentary of Cuomo and sharply critical, particularly when she served as press secretary in 2015 and 2016 for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), a staunch Cuomo rival.
Hinton said that, until recently, she had never considered telling her account publicly, because she had largely brushed off the encounter and was determined not to let it affect her career in the male-dominated world of politics.
Two people close to her, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Cuomo, said Hinton described the episode to them after it happened.
One of them, a friend who has known Hinton since 1989, told The Post that she remembers it to this day as the “hotel room incident,” saying that Hinton told her the story “that day, or the very next day, at least.” Hinton found it upsetting and said she “really had to get out of there,” the friend said.
“She said she was really creeped out. It really freaked her out,” said the friend, who said she is a supporter of Cuomo and thinks he has been a good governor. “I don’t want him to have to resign over all this,” the friend said. “But the truth is the truth.”
Hinton originally told a Post reporter her account on Feb. 14, before three women came forward with detailed descriptions of inappropriate comments or unwelcome touching by the governor. (One of the women, Lindsey Boylan, had gone public on Twitter with broad claims in December.)
At the time when she described the episode to a Post reporter, Hinton said she was not prepared to share it publicly.
Hinton did not mention it in an op-ed she wrote for the New York Daily News in late February about her experience working for powerful male politicians such as Cuomo. But she said she decided to share the account for publication after the governor’s news conference on Wednesday, in part because she wanted to stand in solidarity with his accusers.
She is also planning to detail the episode in a memoir she is writing, she said.
In recent weeks, Hinton has voiced support on social media for the three women who have made claims about Cuomo’s behavior.
Boylan, a former New York economic development official, said Cuomo harassed her on multiple occasions, including one incident where he kissed her without her consent. He has denied her account.
In an interview with “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, Bennett, 25, said Cuomo pressed her about being a sexual assault survivor and seemed to be gauging her interest in sleeping with him.
“I feel like people put the onus on the woman to shut that conversation down, and by answering, I was somehow engaging in that or enabling it, when in fact, I was just terrified,” Bennett told O’Donnell. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice. . . . He’s my boss. He’s everyone’s boss.”
Bennett’s attorney, Debra Katz, noted that Bennett’s experience came several years after Cuomo heralded legislative changes in New York — following the height of the #MeToo movement — related to sexual harassment law.
“He knows exactly what is against the law,” she said. “And he violated it with impunity.”
'The smartest person in the room'
Many of the former Cuomo aides and advisers who did agree to speak about their experiences working with him expressed deep fear about the potential for retribution, saying they believed he would track down those who talked to reporters.
Their accounts had striking similarities. Multiple staffers recounted verbal abuse and emotional manipulation, saying the governor was often consumed by rage and irritation toward them, only to be kind and charming in their next interactions. They found the sharp contrast to be deeply disorienting, with some saying it even drove colleagues to suffer emotional breakdowns.
“He can make you crazy, and then he can act like you’re the best person he has ever met,” said one person close to him.
Several former aides said Cuomo was tightly focused on minutiae — wanting to edit guest lists for events, PowerPoint slides, seating charts, travel itineraries and policy documents — and often grew apoplectic over bad news coverage.
He played staff members against each other, telling his senior aides they were failing and he needed to bring someone else in to improve operations, two officials said. Then he would subsequently say the replacement was failing. Cuomo would regularly tell staffers that he was going to lose reelection because of them, or that they were awful at their job, or that they should be fired, former employees said.
One former official who had worked for several politicians said: “None of my experiences comes anywhere close to working for him.”
“He always has to be the smartest person in the room,” said another former aide who has worked for Cuomo in the governor’s office. “He will beat people down so he is the only person standing.”
Susan Del Percio, a Republican political strategist who was a special adviser to Cuomo in 2014 and 2015, said she could understand how some might have viewed the governor’s office as an abusive workplace — but said she did not and “just took it as: This is the way it is,” after decades in politics and government.
“He was an equal-opportunity yeller,” she said, adding: “People came out of there, men and women, just equally stunned and gobsmacked.”
The accounts of such behavior by Cuomo stretch back decades. Paul Feiner, now the town supervisor in Greenburgh, N.Y., said that when he was a Westchester County legislator in the late 1980s, he had a run-in with Cuomo about a transitional housing project that Cuomo wanted to build in the wealthy enclave. Feiner had proposed downsizing the project. He said Cuomo, who then ran a nonprofit development organization, called him and said: “I’m going to destroy your career and break every bone in your body.” Feiner said he ended up voting for the full project.
New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim (D) said he was on the receiving end of Cuomo’s temper last month after he gave an interview publicly criticizing the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home deaths linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
Kim said he was getting his young daughters ready for bath time when he got a call on his cellphone; it was an operator saying the governor was on the line.
“Mr. Kim, are you an honorable man?” was the first thing Cuomo said, according to Kim. During a 10-minute call, the governor threatened to destroy his career and reputation if he did not immediately issue a statement walking back his criticism, he recounted.
Kim said Cuomo was yelling so loudly that his wife could hear the governor through the phone and began shaking and crying. After Kim went public with his account of the call, Cuomo attacked Kim at a news conference, accusing him of improperly soliciting campaign donations. Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser, has said he was in the room for the call and claims Kim is “lying,” because he never heard anyone threaten to “destroy” anyone.
“I think it’s all one interlinked pattern where he feels untouchable,” Kim said. “Whether it’s verbal or physical abuse, or threatening lawmakers or journalists for doing their jobs, it’s come to a level where it’s so normalized that he doesn’t think twice about behaving that way.”
'I was so embarrassed'
Former staffers said in interviews that Cuomo often wades into the dating lives of younger staffers, asking questions about who they are seeing, or if they are seeing anyone, or if he should set them up with others.
“He’s stuck in a different time warp where these things are okay,” one ally said, saying Cuomo did not see his behavior as problematic in the same way that others did.
A high-ranking HUD political appointee recalled a 2000 incident she characterized as so “inappropriate” that it has bothered her for more than two decades. She had only been on the job for about three weeks when she had a meeting scheduled with Cuomo and an official from the Treasury Department. She and the Treasury official were already at the conference table when Cuomo entered the room.
She stood to greet him, and she recalled Cuomo walking over — to hug her, then kiss her on the cheek.
“I remember being to this day mortified that he had done this to me in front of this official,” the woman recalled. After the meeting ended and Cuomo left, the Treasury official turned to ask her how long she and Cuomo had been friends. She responded that she had just started the job.
The woman said she did not consider the kiss sexual and did not feel Cuomo was coming on to her. Instead, she said she felt the move was “more like a power trip” designed to establish himself as dominant in front of the Treasury official.
“I was so embarrassed, because of course I felt like he was thinking, ‘She was just brought on to be a squeeze,’ ” she said. “It completely diminished me, of course, in the eyes of this person. I have no doubt about that.”
Azzopardi said that seating in HUD meetings was assigned. He added that Cuomo has routinely kissed both men and women on the cheek. “It is his usual custom,” he wrote in an email.
More recently, one young female staffer who worked for Cuomo in the governor’s office said he suggested during a group meeting that a male staffer should date her.
She said she viewed the comment as part of a larger pattern of a hostile workplace known for angry outbursts and blame-shifting by senior staff that left her with crippling anxiety and questioning her self-worth.
“I would cry so hard that I would see stars,” she said.
A second female staffer who worked for him in recent years, when she was in her 20s, said she does not recall Cuomo ever saying her name, though she made sure to introduce herself. He referred to her as “honey” or “sweetheart,” she said. The woman said he asked her whether she had a boyfriend but never pressed her about her sex life.
A third woman who worked as an entry-level staffer several years ago said Cuomo asked her once or twice about her dating life and whether she was seeing someone. “It made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel like it was a proposition,” she said.
“I think it was very normalized, . . . the way people related to one another, the sense that you were expected to look and behave in a certain way, be playful in a certain way,” she added. “It was sort of that hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it culture.”
She said she changed her clothing style over time, opting for tighter dresses and higher heels — the clothing worn by others who seemed to have the approval of the governor and senior staff.
“I felt that I was there, in part, to be eye candy,” she said.
Still, some staffers expressed shock at the sexual harassment allegations — particularly the allegation that Cuomo kissed Boylan without her consent.
“It was a terrible place to work, easily the worst you’d ever imagine,” one former official said. “I still have nightmares about it. But I didn’t think he was that kind of guy at all.”
Cuomo aides noted that a majority of his senior staff are women.
Melissa DeRosa, who serves as the governor’s top aide, came to his defense during his news conference Wednesday, saying the Cuomo administration had a strong record of supporting women’s rights.
“We’ve promoted each other, and we’ve supported one another,” she said. “And I don’t think that this diminishes any of that.”
Michael Scherer, Alice Crites and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.