New York

Cuomo Drops Fight, Lets AG Pick Special Counsel as Dems Call for His Resignation

The governor's office reversed course for a second time on Sunday, ultimately asking the state attorney general to have sole responsibility in selecting an investigatory body into claims of sexual harassment

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What to Know

  • At least three Democrats in the state legislature called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign over new sexual harassment allegations
  • Two former aides have now accused him of inappropriate behavior; at the same time federal prosecutors have launched a probe into his administration's handling of COVID in nursing homes
  • The governor's office reversed course for a second time on Sunday, ultimately asking the attorney general to have sole responsibility in selecting an investigatory body into claims of sexual harassment

At least three Democrats in the state legislature called for NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign overnight, as others demanded a "truly independent" investigation into new claims of sexual harassment against the governor by a former aide.

It marked the latest turn in a stunning reversal of fortune for Cuomo, who just a few months ago was so popular that he was seen as a top candidate for attorney general in the Biden administration, and was considered a frontrunner for the Democrats' nomination for president in 2024.

But a triple-header of scandal has imperiled his future -- first allegations of verbal abuse and threats by a lawmaker, then a federal probe into how his administration handled COVID nursing home deaths, and now claims he was verbally and physically inappropriate with multiple young female staffers.

In a statement released Sunday evening, Cuomo apologized for any behavior interpreted as "unwanted flirtation," but denied inappropriate touching. "To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to," he said. (Read the full statement here).

Chris Glorioso breaks down the nursing home data scandal facing the Cuomo administration and new allegations of sexual harassment against the governor.

Cuomo's office changed position on outsourcing an independent review of the sexual harassment claims for a second time on Sunday, ultimately asking Attorney General Letitia James to choose an independent counsel. Decisions were widely criticized by officials after his office selected a former federal judge to conduct the review late Saturday as well as his reversal early Saturday to hand that decision jointly to James and the chief judge of the court of appeals.

"The Governor's office wants a thorough and independent review that is above reproach and beyond political interference. Therefore, the Governor's office has asked Attorney General Tish James to select a qualified private lawyer to do an independent review of allegations of sexual harassment," the governor's special counsel, Beth Garvery, said in a statement Sunday evening.

James released a statement shortly thereafter saying her office was ready to begin their work. “We expect to receive a 63(8) referral with subpoena power to investigate allegations of sexual harassment against the governor, in line with our demands and New York state law. The referral would be made solely to the attorney general's 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.”

The path to an independent investigation fumbled Sunday morning when the offices of the governor and attorney general released statement within minutes, calling for contradictory actions. Attorney General Letitia James asked for the governor's official referral, which is required by state law, in order to appoint an independent investigator.

Instead, in his own statement, the governor's office asked James and the chief judge of the court of appeals - who was appointed to the position by Cuomo - to jointly select a lawyer in private practice to head an investigation outside of the attorney general's oversight. Following that review the attorney would release a public report, Cuomo's special counsel said.

James followed up Sunday afternoon by rejecting the governor's proposal: "The state's Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral. While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task, per Executive Law. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted."

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Manhattan's Chinatown, called Cuomo a "manipulative, controlling, abusive, power obsessed, predator" and asked him to resign in a tweet Saturday night. Shortly thereafter, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi -- the chair of the Senate's ethics committee -- cited a "clear pattern of abuse and manipulation by the Governor" and called on him to resign.

Additional statements came out Sunday, including that of Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, who represents parts of east Manhattan and also called for the governor's resignation. "If we do not act now, we become complicit in his actions," Epstein tweeted. Rob Ortt, top Republican in the state Senate, joined calls for Cuomo's resignation citing broken public trust and a demonstration of "toxic leadership qualities."

Mayor Bill de Blasio added his voice to calls for an independent review while asking the legislature to immediately strip the governor of his "emergency powers that overrule local control." He added, "the investigation into sexual misconduct must be led by someone fully independent of the governor, not the former business partner of the Governor's top advisor."

At least eight members of Congress - Jerry Nadler, Kathleen Rice, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Antonio Delgado, Grace Meng, Carolyn Maloney, Nydia Velazquez, and Yvette Clarke - who represent New York have since issued public statements demanding an independent probe. That call for outside review is supported by President Biden, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Sunday on CNN, where she said the review "should move forward as quickly as possible."

Multiple candidates for NYC mayor, including Scott Stringer and Carlos Menchaca, called for Cuomo's resignation as well, while others like frontrunner Andrew Yang and civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley called for independent probes into the governor. (At least one called for impeachment proceedings, a less likely hurdle given that conviction would require a two-thirds majority in the Democrat-controlled Senate.)

The demands came quickly after a second former aide to Cuomo leveled claims of sexual harassment against the New York governor, saying he asked "questions about her sex life, whether she was monogamous in her relationships and if she had ever had sex with older men."

Charlotte Bennett, a former executive assistant and health policy adviser, described to The New York Times a conversation with Cuomo where he asked her personal questions about her sex life and whether she had slept with older men. She left the governor's office last November, months after the alleged harassment occurred during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 25-year-old woman said she was alone with the governor in his office on June 5 when he asked if she slept with an older men. Bennett said the governor never made a physical advance but his questions clearly suggested unprofessional conduct.

“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett told the Times. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Bennett says she disclosed the meeting with Cuomo's chief of staff and special counsel shortly after the interaction. She stated an investigation did not feel worth pursuing because she "wanted to move on."

Beth Garvey, current special counsel and senior adviser to the governor, confirmed Bennett's reporting of the incident and her "satisfaction and appreciation for the way in which it was handled." The matter was considered closed and no further action was taken.

The New York governor released a statement Saturday evening announcing an outside review of the latest allegations, but denied making "advances toward Ms. Bennett," whom he called a "hardworking and valued member of our team during COVID." That review would be conducted by former federal judge Barbara Jones with no limits on its scope, Cuomo's special counsel previously stated Saturday.

"I ask all New Yorkers to await the findings of the review so that they know the facts before any judgments. I will have no further comment until the review has concluded," his statement ended.

But that probe was almost universally questioned within hours, given that Cuomo was picking his own outside reviewer.

Both Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie issued statements calling for a "truly independent investigation" into the allegations, and another state senator, Liz Krueger, said Jones was "not an acceptable option" because one of the governor's closest friends is her law partner.

Heastie in particular called for the matter to be referred to Attorney General Letitia James for her office to oversee an independent review.

A coalition of 25 Democratic state assemblywomen said the governor should not be able to appoint his own investigator, asking instead that Attorney General Letitia James appoint an independent investigator. "The Governor's proposal to appoint someone who is not independently elected, has no subpoena authority, and no prosecutorial authority is inadequate," their statement read, in part.

Gov. Cuomo is under fire as a former aide reveals a detailed accusation of sexual harassment, Jonathan Dienst has the latest

These new allegations come only a few days after former senior staffer Lindsey Boylan published an explosive blog post in which she alleged the governor invited her to play strip poker during a flight, among other alleged sexual advances. On one occasion in 2016, she claimed that Cuomo blocked her exit from a room and kissed her.

"As we said before, Ms. Boylan's claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false," Cuomo's office said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. As to the specific claim about the alleged Oct. 2017 proposition to play strip poker, the statement cites four aides who traveled with Boylan that month and say the conversation never happened.

Boylan – who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year and is running for Manhattan borough president this year – first accused Cuomo of sexual harassment last December. At the time, she said she left her position as deputy secretary for economic development in 2018 because she couldn't stand working with him anymore. Cuomo denied the claims then in the strongest terms.

Boylan's latest allegations came just hours after a Daily News op-ed by a former top Cuomo aide, Karen Hinton, who described an environment where he dominated female employees.

The allegations from Bennett and Boylan add to the deluge against Cuomo in recent weeks.

A Queens assemblyman said he'd been harassed and threatened by the governor, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said publicly that being threatened by Cuomo was "classic" behavior for him, federal prosecutors launched an investigation into how the Cuomo administration handled COVID in nursing homes -- and a new poll found that 57% of New Yorkers want a new governor next year.

Cuomo, who has drawn bipartisan criticism in recent weeks over dueling but separate controversies, hasn't held a live on-camera COVID briefing with a Q&A since Feb 19. Until this week, he had held at least three of those weekly since COVID hospitalizations began to climb ahead of the holidays.

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