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Biden calls on Cuomo to resign in wake of sexual harassment investigation

The report described how Andrew Cuomo’s behavior and actions by his top officials violated state and federal law.
The report described how Andrew Cuomo’s behavior and actions by his top officials violated state and federal law.OFFICE OF THE NEW YORK GOVERNOR/NYT

Governor Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, including current and former government workers, whose accounts of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments were corroborated in a damning report released Tuesday by New York state Attorney General Letitia James.

The 165-page report prompted multiple calls for Cuomo to resign, including from President Joe Biden, a longtime ally of the governor, and it cast doubt on Cuomo’s political future. The Democratic speaker of the state Assembly said Tuesday that he intended to quicken the pace of a separate impeachment inquiry, adding that Cuomo “can no longer remain in office.”

The report, the culmination of a five-month investigation, included at least three previously unreported allegations of sexual harassment from women who accused Cuomo of improperly touching them, including a state trooper assigned to the governor’s security detail. It also highlighted far-reaching efforts by the governor, his staff and close associates to disparage and retaliate against one woman who made her allegations public.

All told, investigators said they corroborated the claims of 11 women, nine of whom are current or former state employees, who accused Cuomo of a range of inappropriate behavior, from suggestive comments to instances of groping, through interviews with 179 witnesses and tens of thousands of documents.

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The report described in stunning detail how Cuomo’s behavior and actions by his top officials violated both state and federal law, offering a look at the inner workings of the governor’s office and how it failed to properly handle some of the women’s allegations. It also shed light on a sprawling network of associates, including former aides and close allies, enlisted by Cuomo and his staff to aggressively fight the allegations on behalf of the governor.

Investigators said Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, and his aides fostered a toxic work culture that was rife with fear and intimidation, and helped enable “harassment to occur and created a hostile work environment.”

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“The independent investigation found that Gov. Cuomo harassed multiple women, many of whom were young women, by engaging in unwanted groping, kisses, hugging, and by making inappropriate comments,” James, a Democrat, said during a news conference in Manhattan, adding, “I believe these women.”

Cuomo responded to the findings in a 14-minute prerecorded statement delivered from Albany. In a sweeping, slightly disjointed soliloquy, the governor denied most of the report’s serious findings, reiterating his contention that he had never touched anyone inappropriately. He suggested the report was politically motivated and declared that “the facts are much different from what has been portrayed.”

Letitia James, the New York attorney general, unveiled the findings of her office’s sexual harassment inquiry into Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York on Tuesday. The investigation was conducted by two outside lawyers hired by James: Anne L. Clark (left) a well-known employment lawyer, and Joon H. Kim (right) a former top federal prosecutor.
Letitia James, the New York attorney general, unveiled the findings of her office’s sexual harassment inquiry into Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York on Tuesday. The investigation was conducted by two outside lawyers hired by James: Anne L. Clark (left) a well-known employment lawyer, and Joon H. Kim (right) a former top federal prosecutor.Dave Sanders/New York Times

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

In defending his behavior, Cuomo mentioned that one of his relatives was sexually assaulted in high school and suggested it was sexist to accuse his female supervisors of creating a hostile workplace. His speech was even interlaced with a slideshow of photographs of him kissing public officials on the cheek, gestures he said were “meant to convey warmth, nothing more.”

The political fallout from the report was swift: It prompted Biden, a longtime friend of the governor, to call on Cuomo to resign Tuesday, months after stopping short of asking the governor to step down because the investigation was ongoing.

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“What I said was if the investigation by the attorney general concluded that the allegations were correct, back in March, I would recommend he resign,” said Biden, who had not spoken with Cuomo. “That is what I’m doing today.”

“I think he should resign,” the president said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined the growing chorus of calls for Cuomo to resign, as did three House Democrats from New York who originally said they wanted to wait on the report before weighing in on Cuomo’s fate.

Even Cuomo’s fellow Democratic governors in nearby Northeastern states joined the chorus. In a joint statement, the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and New Jersey said they were appalled at the investigation’s findings and that Cuomo should step down.

The contents of the report, and the subsequent backlash, would seem to limit Cuomo’s political future, and serve as a serious obstacle to being reelected to a fourth term — once regarded as a near certainty for a governor previously hailed a national leader during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic-controlled state Assembly, which could impeach Cuomo with a simple majority vote, has been conducting a broad impeachment investigation into the governor, examining a series of scandals with a common theme: whether or not Cuomo abused his power while in office.

Democrats in the Assembly held a closed-door emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss whether to draft articles of impeachment based solely on the findings of the attorney general report, a move that appeared to have support among many of the 50 or 60 lawmakers who spoke, according to four people with knowledge of the meeting.

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After the meeting, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said his chamber would “move expeditiously and look to conclude our impeachment investigation as quickly as possible.” It could take a month to complete the existing inquiry and draw up the articles of impeachment, according to a person familiar with the process.

A trial in the state Senate could commence as soon as September or early October, the person said. If Cuomo were to resign or be removed from office, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul would succeed him, making her the first woman to become governor in the state’s history.

On Tuesday, Hochul said she believed the governor’s accusers, describing Cuomo’s documented behavior as “repulsive and unlawful.” She said it was up to the Assembly to determine the next steps, adding that “it would not be appropriate to comment further on the process at this moment” because she is next in the line of succession.

The attorney general’s investigation was spearheaded by two outside lawyers: Joon Kim, a former federal prosecutor who once served as acting U.S. attorney of Manhattan, and Anne Clark, a well-known employment lawyer.

On Tuesday, Kim said their investigation revealed a pattern of troubling behavior from Cuomo and found that the culture within the executive chamber “contributed to conditions that allowed the governor’s sexually harassing conduct to occur and to persist.”

“It was a culture where you could not say no to the governor, and if you upset him, or his senior staff, you would be written off, cast aside or worse,” Kim said. “But at the same time, the witnesses described a culture that normalized and overlooked everyday flirtations, physical intimacy and inappropriate comments by the governor.”

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Clark said that the governor’s conduct detailed in the report “clearly meets, and far exceeds” the legal standard used to determine gender-based harassment in the workplace.

“Women also described to us having the governor seek them out, stare intently at them, look them up and down or gaze at their chest or butt,” she said. “The governor routinely interacted with women in ways that focused on their gender, sometimes in explicitly sexualized manner in ways that women found deeply humiliating and offensive.”

The attorney general’s investigation was a civil matter, and as such, has no criminal consequences for the governor. But after the report became public Tuesday, David Soares, the Albany County district attorney, said that his office had opened a criminal investigation into the governor and that it would be requesting investigative materials that the attorney general’s office had obtained.

In theory, unwanted touching and groping of people’s intimate parts could lead to criminal charges, experts said, but as a practical matter, prosecutors would have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, a high legal hurdle.

Creating a hostile work environment is a violation of federal and state civil rights law, and victims could decide to bring lawsuits against Cuomo if the allegations concerned conduct within the statute of limitations, which is roughly three years under federal and state law.

While many of the accounts in the attorney general’s report had been previously reported, some were new: The report said that Cuomo, on multiple occasions, sexually harassed an unnamed female state trooper who he had requested join his protective detail.

Cuomo, the report said, once ran his hand across her stomach when she held the door open for him at an event; ran his finger down her spine when she stood in front of him in an elevator; kissed her on the cheek; and asked her why she did not wear a dress. The woman, whose account was backed by witnesses, including other troopers, told investigators she felt “completely violated.”

In late February, Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official in the Cuomo administration, became the first woman to outline her claims that Cuomo harassed her, which she said occurred multiple times from 2016-18. The report found that Cuomo touched her waist, legs and back; kissed her on the cheek and lips; and suggested once on a plane that the two play “strip poker.” The report also said that the governor’s office “actively engaged in an effort to discredit” Boylan by, in part, leaking her personnel records.

A few days after Boylan publicly accused Cuomo, Charlotte Bennett, a former executive assistant to Cuomo, told The New York Times that the governor made comments that she took as sexual overtures while they were alone in his Albany office last year. The report found that the governor asked whether she had relationships with older men, told her that he was “lonely” during the pandemic and “wanted to be touched,” and asked if she was monogamous.

In early March, a current female aide who has not been publicly identified leveled one of the most serious allegations: She said Cuomo groped her while they were alone on the second floor of the Executive Mansion in Albany late last year.

The report bolstered the account, saying that Cuomo’s behavior toward the woman, who was not named but instead referred to only as Executive Assistant No. 1, included “regular hugs and kisses on the cheek (and at least one kiss on the lips)” and “incidents where the governor grabbed Executive Assistant No. 1′s butt.”

“The Governor, during a hug, reached under Executive Assistant No. 1′s blouse and grabbed her breast,” the report said. The governor denied the women’s account Tuesday, and said he would refrain from commenting on the matter because the woman’s lawyer could be seeking to press charges.

After his remarks Tuesday, Cuomo released a written response to some of the investigation’s findings through his lawyer, Rita Glavin, who called the report “unfair” and “inaccurate.” Among other things, Glavin highlighted social media posts from some of the women praising the governor even after leaving his office and also cited emails and a calendar showing that on the day that Cuomo was accused of groping his executive assistant, several other workers were in the mansion, and the two were only alone together briefly.

Following the report’s release, some of the women and their lawyers issued statements expressing vindication, while also forcefully condemning the governor’s reported behavior, as well as his remarks on Tuesday, with some saying he should be removed from office.

“I feel a sense of relief today,” Bennett said, adding that, “It’s been an extremely stressful process, it has been on my mind every day, there is not a day that I haven’t thought about this report.”

On March 1, as the governor faced a flurry of allegations and calls for his resignation, Cuomo authorized James to oversee an investigation led by outside lawyers into any sexual harassment claims against him. But in recent weeks, Cuomo and his office escalated efforts to discredit the report before its release, questioning James’ political motivations and Kim’s independence.

Previously, Kim was involved in a federal investigation into Cuomo’s decision in 2014 to abruptly dissolve an anticorruption panel known as the Moreland Commission; he also was involved in the prosecution of a former top aide to Cuomo, Joseph Percoco, who was convicted of federal corruption charges in 2018.

Much of the focus will now swing back to the state Assembly, whose judiciary committee has been examining whether Cuomo obscured the death toll of nursing home residents during the pandemic; whether he used state staff and resources to write a book on leadership last summer that netted him $5.1 million; and whether the governor’s family and close associates received priority coronavirus testing, among other issues.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.