Josefa Velasquez, Samantha Maldonado, and Clifford Michel, THE CITY
Special to the Roosevelt Island Daily
When the governor got hit with sexual harassment allegations, CNN host Chris Cuomo and current and former gubernatorial aides quietly crafted a plan to discredit accusers, according to newly released interviews, emails and text messages.
Over 10,000 pages of interviews, emails and text messages released Monday by state Attorney General Letitia James stemming from her office’s investigation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo detail his inner circle’s actions to deflect accusations of sexual misconduct.
Key links in that circle were employed outside of the governor’s office — most prominently the governor’s brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, revealed in messages to have used his media-world connections in a bid to blunt scrutiny of his older sibling’s actions.
The new materials, from an investigation culminating in an August report, also show current and former staffers mobilizing to discredit Cuomo’s first two public accusers, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett. The troves follow a document drop earlier this month that included the governor’s evasive interview with investigators hired by James’ office, as well as testimony from multiple women who alleged harassment.
Cuomo, who has repeatedly denied the harassment accusations, resigned in August under threat of impeachment from the state Legislature. Last month, he was charged with a misdemeanor sex crime in Albany stemming from an allegation he forcibly touched an aide in the Executive Mansion.
The thousands of pages of testimony, conducted under oath, offer a glimpse into how members of the Cuomo administration and some of his closest advisers crafted a public relations strategy to discredit the women who accused him — and used their extensive connections to try to get ahead of the allegations.
The reams of documents that accompany them are a fraction of the material collected by investigators enlisted by James, who is now running for governor.
Some key takeaways:
In mid-August, following the attorney general’s bombshell report, the younger Cuomo assured his CNN viewers that he “tried to do the right thing” and advised his brother to resign as governor, after The Washington Post reported that the TV journalist joined strategy calls with the governor’s advisers.
“I wasn’t in control of anything,” Chris Cuomo told viewers. “I was there to listen and offer my take. And my advice to my brother was simple and consistent — own what you did, tell people what you’ll try to do to be better, be contrite.”
But materials released Monday show the depth of the younger Cuomo’s involvement — which included drafting statements for his brother to deny the alleged sexual misconduct and offering edits and insights on statements crafted by his senior aides.
“As the situation started to accelerate, my brother asked me to be in the loop,” Chris Cuomo told investigators, the transcript of his interview shows.
He said he started communicating more frequently with his brother’s top adviser, Melissa DeRosa, as former gubernatorial aide Lindsey Boylan went public with allegations of sexual harassment against the governor last winter.
In tweets and in a February Medium post, Boylan also accused Andrew Cuomo of fostering a toxic workplace.
“The general was — I need your help. I’m sorry that you’re getting pulled into this kind of thing. And if you can be available, please be available,” Chris Cuomo recalled to the investigators during the July 15 interview, speaking about his brother.
According to DeRosa’s testimony, the governor’s brother would send “a lot of things all a lot of the time.”
“He sends unsolicited advice,” she told investigators.
“Please let me help with the prep,” the younger Cuomo texted DeRosa, the highest unelected official in the state, in early March after Bennett accused the governor of “grooming” her for sex and asking about her love life.
‘How Do I Protect My Family?’
But text messages between the pair also show DeRosa deploying Chris Cuomo and his media-elite connections to shield his big brother.
DeRosa sent requests to the CNN host asking for “intel” on a then-unpublished story by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, whose exposes had previously uncovered sexual misconduct by media mogul Harvey Weinstein and former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Chris Cuomo responded 10 minutes later, saying that the story was “not ready for tomorrow.”
And while the younger Cuomo testified under oath that he did not reach out to sources to get information about the complainants or do opposition research on them, text messages, documents and other testimony gathered by investigators show the contrary.
The CNN host told investigators that he would reach “sources — other journalists — to see if they had heard of anybody” who was planning on accusing the governor.
On March 4, Chris Cuomo texted DeRosa to tell her that he had a “lead on the wedding girl” — an apparent reference to Anna Ruch, who accused the governor of grabbing her face and making her feel uncomfortable at a wedding they both attended.
Chris Cuomo also sent an email message forwarding documents containing information about Bennett, including tweets, from her time in college to the governor’s advisers, according to the questioning by investigators of Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who worked on Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 campaign.
CNN said in a statement to The Washington Post that the company “will be having conversations and seeking additional clarity about their significance as they relate to CNN over the next several days.”
Chris Cuomo told investigators that he was “trying to help my brother through a situation where he has told me he did nothing wrong.”
“And that’s it for me. How do I protect my family? How do I help protect him? I probably should have been thinking more about how I protect myself, which just never occurred to me,” he added.
The investigators’ materials also revealed details about the roles of Smith and two former Cuomo employees in rushing to the then-governor’s defense — and on attack against women who went public.
In text messages to senior advisers and allies, Smith bragged that MSNBC host Katy Tur was using her talking points about Cuomo live on air.
“I’m texting w Katy Tur,” Smith wrote to the group. “Katy is saying my spin live. Like verbatim.”
Smith and the group appraised how the story was moving in a favorable direction after the governor held his first press briefing in March in which he said he was embarrassed and apologetic, but would not resign.
Smith was hesitant for the public to know about her involvement in helping the governor and his team, telling Cuomo’s advisers it would be bad for her “credibility” to answer a reporter’s question.
“It was a big national story, you know, big fire storm and it was not something that I felt like I needed to be in the middle of,” she told investigators.
“There’s a big difference between being in the middle of it and behind the scenes and being in the middle of it in a newspaper. So I do think that’s different,” she added.
Alphonso David, Cuomo’s former counsel who was serving as the head of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, was working behind the scenes with his former colleagues to discredit one of the accusers.
David was fired last month for his involvement with the Cuomo response.
The governor’s office “routinely involved him in legal matters after he left” the executive chamber, DeRosa told investigators, and continued to rely on David as of early July, when she was called in to testify, even though he is not paid and has no contract for his legal services.
It’s not uncommon for former executive chamber employees to still be in the Cuomo orbit after they’ve left government: The so-called “Hotel California” in the Cuomo administration relies on a key group of advisers on all sorts of matters. The closed nature of the group runs so deep that DeRosa wouldn’t allow an assistant to set up calls with them.
“I trust no one,” she said in a text exchange.
‘Nobody Ever Really Leaves’
While David said he didn’t typically handle sexual harassment issues in the executive chamber, he did in the case of Boylan, while they were both employed by the administration in 2018.
David told investigators that he maintained a memo documenting Boylan’s personnel issues in a filing cabinet and took copies with him when he left the executive chamber.
David also said that he was approached by DeRosa and Cuomo communications adviser Rich Azzopardi to share his copies of the file with them when they were scrambling to counter her accusations.
“I think at the time I said, ‘It should be in Counsel’s Office. It was left there.’ They were making phone calls to people to find out where it could be or where it was,” said David, later adding, “I said, ‘Well, I have a copy of it and I can send it to you because they’re official documents.’”
Dani Lever, Cuomo’s former communications director, was also involved in discussions around strategy, even after she left for a new job at Facebook in late summer 2020.
In December, she messaged Cuomo counsel Linda Lacewell saying, “I still don’t know why we are talking to Gov lol,” and followed up with, “But I’m here for the ride.”
Someone messaged Lever the following February saying, “Nobody ever really leaves.” She responded, “You’re telling me!”
A Kissing ‘Family’
The testimony from some of Cuomo’s most loyal allies offers a glimpse into how the governor’s office operated at the height of his popularity in the limelight of daily COVID-19 briefings.
Younger staffers were often referred to as “the kids” and a select group of top aides refer to themselves as a “family.” The familiarity between employees of the executive chamber trickled into the workplace.
Annabel Walsh, Cuomo’s former director of scheduling, said she was kissed on the lips by Cuomo on several occasions and saw him do the same to other aides, including DeRosa and Stephanie Benton, the former director of the governor’s office. But Walsh also said that they weren’t uncomfortable with the kissing and that she didn’t recall it ever lasting more than two seconds.
But DeRosa said Cuomo had never kissed her on the mouth, nor had she seen him do it to others. And Benton said the governor never kissed her on the lips, but would kiss her on the cheek and forehead in a “parental” way that felt “comforting.”
The then-governor had told investigators that he would be “uncomfortable” testifying under oath saying he had never kissed former aides on the lips.
‘Somehow, We’re in Charge’
Walsh and eight other top aides had a group chat dubbed “Somehow, we’re in charge.”
She and four others also were part of another group text chat called “Mean Girls,” after the movie of the same name.
Lever and DeRosa told investigators they jokingly referred to themselves as such, and said the governor would tell them to stop being “Mean Girls.” Once he called DeRosa “Regina George,” the clique’s ringleader in the film.
In related “Mean Girls” parlance, Lever told Boylan in a series of text messages in 2018 that the governor “likes pushers,” which, she went on to explain, meant a person with “political savvy” who can get someone to a yes from a no without his direction.
After Boylan published her Medium post detailing her experience working in the governor’s office, some of Cuomo’s aides and allies took to a group thread to disparage Boylan.
“She’s younger than me???” DeRosa opined. “Whatever she is doing, she’s not aging well.”
Benton and DeRosa stayed at the Executive Mansion for periods of time during the height of the pandemic.
“What’s with all these women going to the mansion,” Smith texted DeRosa. “Can you just fire every woman in the office.”
Walsh said that on two occasions, she, Benton and Cuomo jumped into the pool at the mansion, albeit fully clothed, she told investigators. Benton said she only remembered one time she and other attendees at a post-session gathering jumped in while dressed.
‘Victim Shame on the Record’
In strategizing public responses, Cuomo’s team looked to the how the camps of other powerful men handled press in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.
In December, David wanted to respond to the Boylan allegation with a positive gesture, and Walsh brought up the letter of support signed by dozens of women who worked with news anchor Tom Brokaw when he was accused of sexual harassment by a former colleague.
“I think that there are MANY, MANY people that would sign on to a letter talking about how incredible he is and how empowered they felt by him etc,” Walsh emailed DeRosa. “I really think that is a much more powerful message that people would be (legally and otherwise) okay signing onto.”
Linda Lacewell and Benton began collecting names of women who worked with Cuomo to possibly sign a supportive letter — which was never publicly released. Nor was the original version of a letter the team had floated, which refuted Boylan’s claims in detail while defending Cuomo.
That same month, reacting to Boylan’s accusations of Cuomo sexually harassing her, Lever texted DeRosa and Azzopardi to refer to what then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s spokespeople said when he was accused of sexual assault during his campaign.
She sent Biden’s deputy campaign manager’s statement from the time that said the then-candidate believed “women have a right to be heard,” but the claim was untrue and the press should review it.
“I think we can victim shame on the record,” Lever had texted the group in December. “This was part of Biden’s response by the way. Biden camp said ‘this absolutely did not happen’ then gave statement.”
Lever defended the idea of disclosing Boylan’s personnel file or releasing information about her employment with the state, she told investigators later.
And advisers to the governor mused about whether a rule that Vice President Mike Pence followed — that he would not dine alone with a woman other than his wife or attend events with alcohol without her — should be applied to the governor, according to DeRosa’s testimony.
Judy Mogul, special counsel to the governor, recommended it “out of his protection,” DeRosa said. “And previously I know that when [Cuomo] was at HUD, he had a very similar policy.”
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