Cuomo Sparred With Investigators Over Meaning of ‘Girlfriend,’ ‘Date’ — and ‘Butt’

Cuomo Sparred With Investigators Over Meaning of ‘Girlfriend,’ ‘Date’ — and ‘Butt’

Josefa Velasquez, Claudia Irizarry Aponte, Eileen Grench, and Clifford Michel, THE CITY

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Newly released transcripts offer a glimpse into the governor’s defiant, Clintonesque defense as probers grilled him about sexual harassment allegations. Meanwhile, 10 women testified about their experience with his administration.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Three months after Attorney General Letitia James’ office issued a scathing report detailing sexual harassment by Andrew Cuomo, her office on Wednesday released transcripts of interviews with the former governor and 10 women involved in the inquiry.

The more than 2,300 pages of interviews offer a glimpse into how Cuomo and top aides interacted with underlings — and how he pushed back on the 11-hour, mid-July interrogation by a former federal prosecutor and a workplace misconduct attorney. 

Despite denying the allegations, Cuomo resigned in August under threat of impeachment by the state Legislature. He was charged late last month with a misdemeanor sex crime stemming from an allegation he forcibly touched an aide in the Governor’s Mansion. 

In his interview, a defiant Cuomo questioned the motivations of the investigators hired by James’ office to conduct the inquiry, offering meandering answers or obtuse responses, while flexing his legal acumen. 

Asked by investigators whether he understood he had the right not to answer questions that might incriminate him, Cuomo noted he was “a former attorney general.”

“I’m aware of the attorney general’s power. I’m aware of the special prosecutor power, independent investigator power, I understand there may be subsequent investigations to this investigation, yes,” the then-governor said. 

The reems of testimony, conducted under oath, and the accompanying exhibits represent just a portion of the material collected by James. Still to come are the transcripts of interviews with some of Cuomo’s most loyal aides. 

Some themes that emerged in the transcripts released so far:

The Bill Clinton Approach

Now-former President Bill Clinton’s legal defense in the investigation over whether he had a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky hinged on parsing words. 

In 1998, Clinton told the grand jury that he was not lying when he said “There’s nothing going on between” himself and Lewinsky — noting that the line of questioning depended on the definition of “is.” 

At the time, Cuomo was working for Clinton as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Like his former boss, Cuomo deployed a similar tactic with investigators hired by James’ office, questioning at great length the definition of “girlfriend” and “date” when asked about a former actress he had been rumored to be seeing who resembled aide Lindsey Boylan.

Q: Did you date her? 

A. How do you want to define “date”? 

Q. How do you define “date”?

A. But it doesn’t matter how I define “date.” How do you define “date”? Because it’s your question.

Q. My question is — you don’t understand the question of — first I’ll go to my earlier question: Was she your girlfriend? You don’t understand that question?  

A. I — was she my girlfriend, meaning? 

Q. Do you understand what a girlfriend is? 

A. Well, girlfriend means different things to different people.

On a separate occasion, investigators asked Cuomo if he ever intentionally touched any woman on the butt, which he denied. They asked if he ever touched a woman “near the butt,” which prompted Rita Glavin, Cuomo’s lawyer, to request a definition of what “near the butt” means.  

“Do you understand where a human’s butt is? And anywhere near there?” Cuomo was asked.

“Well, ‘near the butt’ now becomes an expansive area,” he replied.

Dredging Up Grudges — and Schumer 

Cuomo didn’t seek to hide his scorn at the investigators, particularly Joon Kim, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb tapped to conduct the inquiry. Cuomo and Kim have been at odds before. 

Kim, a former acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, was a top deputy under former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office led a corruption investigation against Cuomo that ultimately cleared him but sent his top aide and close friend Joe Percoco to prison in 2018. 

It’s been years since the investigation into Cuomo disbanding the so-called Moreland Commission to probe corruption in state government ceased, but it was still fresh on the governor’s mind. And he was sure to remind Kim about it. 

Kim asked Cuomo questions over who coined the term “mean girls” to describe a group of top female aides known for banding together to berate other staffers, according to the transcripts of Cuomo and other aides. 

Ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a daily coronavirus briefing with top adviser Melissa DeRosa.

“It was [former Cuomo aide] Andrew Ball, who you remember from the Percoco trial. You put him on the — you put him up at the trial. Remember? So you’re familiar with him,” Cuomo responds. 

For months, Cuomo, his aides and lawyer have attempted to discredit the work of the investigators hired by James’ office to conduct the sexual harassment inquiry. They cited Kim’s proximity to the former U.S. attorney and Bharara’s past employment on the staff of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who, in March, had called for Cuomo to resign

“Preet Bharara has political aspirations, may have political aspirations against me,” Cuomo said. “His rabbi, your rabbi, Senator Schumer called for my resignation. I mean, the concept of you as the resolution to the conflict as an independent reviewer is bizarre to me and raises ethical and legal questions.” 

‘Mean Girls’ and Starbucks

Around the halls of the state Capitol, a cadre of senior female aides was dubbed the “mean girls,” a reference to the 2004 movie about high school girls who mesmerized and terrorized their classmates. 

In their testimony to investigators, Cuomo and former aides acknowledged the existence of his administration’s “mean girls”: then-secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa, and top aides Stephanie Benton, Annabel Walsh, Dani Lever and Jill DesRosiers.

Some of the women who worked for Cuomo told investigators they believed the quintet fostered a toxic workplace.

Ex-Cuomo aide Lindsey Boylan, the first to publicly accuse him of sexual harassment, said that DeRosa “used to have memes about the ‘Mean Girls’ movie and she liked the association of being that lead mean girl.” 

Lindsey Boylan during her campaign for Manhattan borough president, June 17, 2021.

“They were very close to each other and they were very close with the governor. They would follow him or attend events with him. Most of them worked out of the New York City office. As he was coming up to Albany more they would come up with him,” said former aide Brittany Commisso, whose accusations against Cuomo prompted the criminal complaint. 

“They would come up in the helicopter with him, they would go in the plane with him, they would travel with him. If they called you, you were to act like it was him calling you.”

Investigators asked Commisso when, if ever, she saw DeRosa yell at or be harsh with somebody. “Quite a few times,” she responded.

“Melissa DeRosa is one of the meanest people I’ve met in my whole life,” said Charlotte Bennett, who accused Cuomo of “grooming” her for sex and asking about her love life in March.

Charlotte Bennett was a former executive assistant in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. Credit: Twitter

“You can hear her screaming no matter where you’re sitting on the 39th floor [of Cuomo’s Manhattan office]. She could be on a phone call and you will know, and you could be on the other side of the floor,” she added.

Commisso told investigators that Cuomo and DeRosa would routinely ask her and other subordinates to fetch them coffee or food. Bennett told investigators that a previous aide had spent “thousands of dollars on coffee” and received a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card at his going away party as a joke. 

DeRosa, Commisso told investigators, would demand coffee from Starbucks, the nearest of which Commisso said was a 15-minute drive from the Capitol.

“She would ask us to get her Starbucks which we don’t have in the building, so that would mean that one of us would have to go in our cars and drive or we would ask one of the gentlemen who worked on the floor in the admin office if they could go pick it up for her,” Commisso told investigators. “And if that wasn’t back in time she would say, ‘Where is my coffee?’ or ‘What is taking so long?’ She didn’t have a lot of patience with us.”

“The mean girls, they all started to — to be short with me because the governor had an interest and was bringing me around with him to events and I was staffing meetings with him and sitting with him and I was close to the governor,” another aide identified only as Kaitlin testified.

Did They or Didn’t They?

It’s a question that’s been whispered in New York politics for years, but intensified as sexual harassment allegations were leveled against Cuomo last spring: Did the former governor have a physical relationship with any of the senior aides in his inner circle? 

According to Cuomo, no. But that’s not to say he didn’t kiss any of them on the lips. 

Cuomo testified that over the course of many years, he “could have kissed” one staffer, whose name is redacted in the transcripts. 

“I don’t even remember all the situations that I’ve been in with her — the weddings, the deaths, funerals. Over [redacted] years could I have kissed her on the lips? Am I absolutely sure I never kissed her lips? No, I’m not absolutely sure I never kissed her on the lips,” he told investigators. 

Cuomo listed several aides, some of whose names were redacted, that he would be “uncomfortable” testifying under oath saying he never kissed them on the lips. 

They include Walsh, a former aide who was included in the attorney general’s report in August for telling investigators that she and the governor kissed on occasion, but that she did not find the kisses uncomfortable. 

Benton, the former director of the governor’s offices, told investigators that she had sat on the governor’s lap during an event for members of the administration, according to James’ August report. In the newly released transcripts, Cuomo doesn’t deny that Benton or Walsh may have sat on his lap. 

An unidentified state trooper testified that the unidentified Senior Staffer #1 and #2 “were basically living at the Governor’s Mansion” in Albany when the pandemic started in March 2020 until the fall, when reports surfaced that one of the governor’s daughters was dating a state trooper. 

“Could they have had their own bedroom? Of course. But no one knows what’s going on behind closed doors,” the female trooper said. “I know that they would be up at the pool house in bikinis and bathing suits. I don’t really know anyone who stays at their boss’s house like that.” 

The trooper also testified that an unnamed senior investigator had told her that he witnessed the governor and Senior Staffer #1 “making out on the sidewalk like they were high schoolers,” she told investigators in May

Investigators asked Cuomo if he had kissed any men on the lips, to which he responded, “not purposefully” — but could not remember any specifics on who those men could be. 

The Cult of Cuomo

The question of whether Cuomo had a romantic relationship with members of his staff was also posed to some of the female aides who accused the governor of sexual harassment. Three of them said that they heard rumors and had reason to suspect something was going on between Cuomo and three high-ranking employees. 

Bennett said she “was really confused” over the relationship Cuomo had with the three unnamed staffers. 

“He would talk very casually with them. It didn’t seem like a professional relationship,” Bennett said. 

In her interview, Kaitlin said the governor’s conduct with some senior staffers felt “inappropriate and cultish” as they jockeyed for his attention. 

“Some women would just be very casual and close to him, sitting closely on, like, the couch or with their arm around him.”

“Would he put his arm around any one of those women?” Kaitlin mused to investigators. “Probably, yeah.”

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