Josefa Velasquez, THE CITY
Even as the governor advocated a Women’s Equality Act that promised to “ban” workplace sexual harassment, female Albany reporters and employees heard a very different message.
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo confronts a second allegation of sexual harassment by a former employee, women who have worked for and around him say that years of cringe-worthy moments served as warning signals.
“Andrew Cuomo has been doing all of this in plain sight,” said Alexis Grenell, a political strategist who writes about the nexus of gender and power.
The most recent allegations come from Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former adviser who told The New York Times the then-62-year-old governor asked last June if she ever had sex with an older man, along with other questions about her personal life.
That date fell after Cuomo put into effect a requirement for sexual harassment training for all employees statewide — part of a package of laws spurred by the #MeToo movement that grew after numerous sexual assault allegations were leveled against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
A top Cuomo aide, Rich Azzopardi, told THE CITY that the governor and unspecified senior staff have received the training, which was required as of Oct. 2, 2019.
A “model policy” provided by Cuomo’s office to employers described harassment as including “any unwanted verbal or physical advances, sexually explicit derogatory statements or sexually discriminatory remarks made by someone which are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, which cause the recipient discomfort or humiliation, which interfere with the recipient’s job performance.”
Attorney General Letitia James’ office will oversee an investigation into the sexual harassment accusations against Cuomo, already besieged by a federal probe into how he hid the true COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes across the state. The sexual harassment allegations also followed a Queens Assembly member’s charge that Cuomo threatened to “destroy” him for speaking out about the nursing home scandal.
Some lawmakers have called on the governor, whose national profile grew from his daily news conferences during the worst of the pandemic last spring, to resign.
In a statement Sunday evening addressing the sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo said he “never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm.”
“At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. I do it in public and in private,” the governor said.
He added: “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.”
A ‘Disservice to Women’
Bennett’s allegations came after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, alleged Cuomo invited her to play strip poker aboard the governor’s jet.
She also charged he once blocked her from leaving his office and gave her an unwanted kiss on the lips. On another occasion, according to Boylan, he ushered her into his office and displayed a cigar box he said former President Bill Clinton gave him — which she took as an allusion to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Boylan describes events she alleged took place in 2016 and 2017 — after Cuomo had already begun highlighting women’s equality, campus sexual assault and sexual misconduct as signature issues he vowed to address.
Among the 10 items in Cuomo’s 2013 Women’s Equality Act proposal was a measure to “ban sexual harassment in every workplace.”
But reporters who crossed paths with Cuomo got a decidedly different tone from the governor himself — one that many women said made them uncomfortable.
At an impromptu media gaggle outside of his office on the second floor of the state Capitol in January 2019, Cuomo asked a throng of reporters to take a few steps back to allow him more room.
“I’ll bring you all up on charges under the Me Too movement,” Cuomo said.
The following day, Cuomo brushed off his remarks during an interview with an upstate radio host, chalking it up to an “offhand comment.”
“I was assaulted by the gaggle and pieces of equipment hitting me in all sorts of my anatomy. It was an offhand comment just to get them to move back. You know, the physical assault was overwhelming, but it was just an offhand comment. “
When Karen DeWitt, a longtime Capitol correspondent for public radio, asked Cuomo in December 2017 what his administration was doing to deal with sexual misconduct in state government in light of sexual harassment and assault allegations levied against a former aide, the governor told the reporter she was doing a “disservice to women.” (A federal judge ultimately dismissed a related lawsuit against the aide, Sam Hoyt.)
“Well look you have it going on in journalism. What are you going to do differently?” Cuomo said in remarks caught on video. “When you say, ‘It’s state government’ you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you’re a woman,” Cuomo said. “It’s not government. It’s society.”
‘It Caught Fire’
During his annual visit to the New York State Fair in August 2016, Cuomo asked a local female television reporter if she was capable of eating an entire Gianelli sausage sandwich, a state fair staple.
“I wanna see you eat the whole sausage,” Cuomo tells the reporter, who was handed a sandwich by a now-former aide to the governor.
“I don’t know if I should eat the whole sausage in front of you, but I’m definitely gonna eat it,” the reporter responds, prompting the governor to invite her to his table, where Cuomo’s youngest daughter, the Onondaga County executive and other elected officials were also seated.
As NewsChannel 9’s Beth Cefalu asks for a selfie with the governor, he states “there’s too much sausage in that picture,” to laughter from the surrounding crowd.
At the time, the interaction prompted groans in the press room at the state Capitol where scores of reporters from different news outlets are stationed.
One difference between then and now, according to Grenell, is the sea change in the Legislature, which is “increasingly younger and female and more feminist.”
“Women’s voices in politics seem to matter all of a sudden,” she told THE CITY.
The dual allegations emerged after Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Queens) revealed receiving calls from the governor threatening to “destroy” his career over criticism of how Cuomo handled nursing home resident deaths from COVID-19.
The governor’s office denies that Cuomo threatened Kim. But Kim’s version of their encounter unleashed years of stories of Cuomo bullying everyone from lawmakers to aides to journalists during a career in politics that dates to him helping run his father’s 1977 mayoral campaign.
The governor “is a master of maintaining control and manipulation of people who have long been very fearful of his reactions. That’s not news,” said Karen Hinton, who worked for Cuomo when he was secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration.
“Kim coming out and breaking through that fear in a very public and aggressive manner enabled others to do the same,” said Hinton, who later worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “And it caught fire.”
‘A Rigorous and Independent Investigation’
The recent sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo prompted an avalanche of calls for an independent investigation by lawmakers.
The governor’s office initially proposed that a former federal judge who once worked as a partner at a law firm of one of Cuomo’s closest advisers investigate the accusations before abandoning the idea following a torrent of criticism.
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The governor’s counsel, Beth Garvey, floated a second proposal to have James and Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Janet DiFiore select an outside law firm to conduct an investigation, but it was ultimately aborted over Cuomo’s extensive ties to DiFiore.
Cuomo appointed DiFiore to head the state’s ethics commission in 2011 before nominating her to lead New York’s highest-ranking court and paved the way for her daughter to secure a position as a State Supreme Court judge.
After a day of back-and-forth by the Cuomo administration over who would investigate, the governor’s office acquiesced Sunday evening, referring the matter to James’ office.
“This is not a responsibility we take lightly. We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation,” James said in a statement.
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