ALBANY — New York’s attorney general said she’s moving forward with an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after receiving a letter from his office Monday authorizing her to take charge of the probe.
The referral letter allows Attorney General Letitia James to deputize an outside law firm to conduct the inquiry with full subpoena power. When the investigation is finished, the findings will be disclosed in a public report, the letter said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo acknowledged for the first time Sunday that some of his behavior with women “may have been insensitive or too personal,” and said he would cooperate with a sexual harassment investigation led by the state’s attorney general.
In a statement released amid mounting criticism from within his own party, the Democrat maintained he had never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone. But he said he had teased people about their personal lives in an attempt to be “playful.”
“I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that,” he said.
Cuomo, one of America’s most prominent governors, is facing the most serious challenge of his decade in office following claims he sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him. Democrats in New York and around the nation aren’t rallying to his side, leaving him increasingly isolated from traditional allies. His partial admission of wrongdoing came after a day of wrangling over who should investigate his workplace behavior.
By day’s end, Cuomo acquiesced to demands that James control the inquiry.
James said the outside law firm would undertake “a rigorous and independent investigation.”
“This is not a responsibility we take lightly,” said James, a Democrat who has been, at times, allied with Cuomo but is independently elected and had emerged as a consensus choice to lead a probe.
Calls for an investigation mounted after a second former employee of Cuomo’s administration went public Saturday with harassment claims. Local lawmakers, including state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome, and Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, D-119, Marcy, were among those calling for the attorney general to head the investigation.
“These are serious and deeply
concerning accusations made against the governor that definitely warrant investigation. Sexual harassment should not be tolerated in any form. I want to reiterate that the women who have made these allegations should be respected and deserve to be heard. That is why I am calling on the attorney general, in some manner, to conduct an independent investigation into these troubling accusations,” Griffo said.
“The recent allegations of sexual harassment made against the governor are serious,” added Buttenschon. “Anyone who has been a victim of sexual harassment should feel comfortable coming forward without fear of persecution or retaliation. That is why I am requesting Attorney General Letitia James and her office to oversee an independent investigation regarding these allegations. Sexual harassment, in any form, will not be tolerated, no matter who you are, and comes with severe consequences if found credible.”
Charlotte Bennett, a low-level aide in the governor’s administration until November, told The New York Times Cuomo asked questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men, and made other comments she interpreted as gauging her interest in an affair.
Her accusation came days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development adviser, elaborated on harassment allegations she first made in December. Boylan said Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and comments about her appearance.
Cuomo, 63, said he had intended to be a mentor for Bennett, who is 25. He has denied Boylan’s allegations.
Over several hours Sunday, James and other leading party officials rejected two of Cuomo’s proposals for how an investigation might proceed.
Under his first plan, a retired federal judge picked by Cuomo, Barbara Jones, would have reviewed his workplace behavior. In the second proposal, announced Sunday morning in an attempt to appease legislative leaders, Cuomo asked James and the state’s chief appeals court judge, Janet DiFiore, to jointly appoint a lawyer to investigate and issue a public report.
James rejected both plans, demanding a formal referral giving her office authority to subpoena documents and witness testimony.
Many of the biggest names in New York politics lined up behind James.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both Democrats, said they wanted the attorney general to handle the investigation. Republican leaders had, for days, called on James to launch a probe. On Sunday, Republican state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt called on Cuomo to resign.
New York’s two U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both said an independent investigation was essential.
“These allegations are serious and deeply concerning. As requested by Attorney General James, the matter should be referred to her office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power,” Gillibrand said.
Cuomo’s statement that women had misinterpreted comments that were intended to be jokes was met with outrage from some people, who said he appeared to be blaming the women.
“Is it ‘playful’ to touch one’s employees’ legs & kiss them on the lips against their will? Bc better men than A Cuomo have been fired for that,” tweeted former Fox News and NBC journalist Megyn Kelly, whose sexual harassment allegations against late Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes helped lead to his ouster.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden also supported an independent review that “should move forward as quickly as possible.”
The furor comes amid a new round of criticism over Cuomo’s leadership style and actions his administration took to protect his reputation as a leader in the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo won praise as a strong hand during last spring’s crisis of rising case counts and overflowing morgues. His book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published in October.
But in recent weeks his administration was forced to revise its count of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes following criticism that it had undercounted the fatalities to blunt accusations that some of his administration’s policies had made the situation worse.
James fueled some of that criticism by issuing a report saying the Cuomo administration had undercounted deaths.
Now, his support is eroding faster.
“Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett’s detailed accounts of sexual harassment by Gov. Cuomo are extremely serious and painful to read,” U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter Sunday. “There must be an independent investigation — not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General.”