New York Attorney General Letitia James has named two attorneys to investigate and document findings into allegations of sexual harassment against Gov. Andrew Cuomo lodged by multiple women.
James announced Monday that former acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon H. Kim and and employment discrimination attorney Anne L. Clark will lead the investigations.
“We are committed to an independent and thorough investigation of the facts,” said James said in a statement. “Joon H. Kim and Anne L. Clark are independent, legal experts who have decades of experience conducting investigations and fighting to uphold the rule of law. There is no question that they both have the knowledge and background necessary to lead this investigation and provide New Yorkers with the answers they deserve.”
Both Kim and Clark have experience handling high-profile cases involving men accused of abusing their power.
Kim served as the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for nearly a year, from March 2017 to Jan. 2018, overseeing team of more than 200 assistant U.S. attorneys handling a wide variety of criminal cases. Before serving in that position, he also served as deputy U.S. attorney, chief of the criminal division and as chief counsel to the U.S. attorney. During his time with the SDNY, its highest-profile cases involved public corruption. Kim is currently a partner at a law firm, focusing internal investigations and regulatory enforcement, as well as high-stakes litigation, James said.
Kim directed an investigation that sent one of Cuomo’s top aides (Joseph Percoco, whom the governor once likened to a brother) to prison on a bribery conviction. While Cuomo wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, testimony presented an unflattering picture of his office’s inner workings.
Another investigation led by Kim led to the conviction of another Cuomo associate on charges connected to a massive economic development project that the governor had championed. He was a key figure as the U.S. attorney’s office investigated the state’s Buffalo Billion high-tech construction project, a probe that led to the conspiracy and wire fraud conviction of Alain Kaloyeros, a man whom Cuomo once called his "economic guru."
Days into his tenure as the acting U.S. attorney, Kim announced prosecutors wouldn’t seek criminal charges against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, after investigating whether his administration solicited campaign contributions from people seeking official favors from the city.
Kim was known in the U.S. attorney’s office as being detail-oriented while also having a good sense of humor that people didn’t always recognize.
Clark has spent the past 30 years at a law firm where she focuses on employment law issues on behalf of workers, and has represented a number of clients in sexual harassment and other employment discrimination cases in the private sector, education, and — perhaps most importantly — government. She once represented a woman in sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a powerful New Jersey politician.
In that case, her former client was woman who sued former New Jersey state Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, accusing him of repeatedly kissing and groping her against her wishes while she worked for the Assembly in the mid-1990s. Haytaian denied the allegations. The state eventually paid the woman $175,000 to settle the case; Haytaian, who also chaired the state Republican Party for a time, later retired from political life.
Earlier in Clark’s career, she worked for what was then the National Organization for Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund; it’s now called Legal Momentum.
She was periodically quoted in the media — including about a 1993 Supreme Court case that hinged on whether a Tennessee-based forklift rental company president’s sexual innuendos and sexist remarks, which he said were jokes, amounted to an abusive work environment. A lower court had said no, reasoning that the executive’s conduct was offensive but wouldn’t have been expected to “seriously affect” an employee’s psychological well-being.
Clark, who wasn’t involved in the case, saw it differently: “You shouldn’t have to suffer a nervous breakdown before you can make a claim,” USA Today quoted her as saying. The Supreme Court ultimately also disagreed and sent the case back to the lower court to proceed.
Kim and Clark's efforts in the probe will be supports by Jennifer Kennedy Park, Abena Mainoo and Yannick Grant, according to the announcement. After the announcement was made, Clark said "the people of New York deserve an exhaustive and independent investigation into these allegations, and I am committed to seeing it through." Her partner in this endeavor, Kim said n a statement released by the attorney general's office that the claims are "serious allegations that demand a rigorous and impartial investigation. We will act judiciously and follow the facts wherever they lead."
The investigation will include claims made by the women against Cuomo, as well as his administration's handling of such matters. The team will be able to issue subpoenas in order to examine relevant documents, records and data relating to the case, and can conduct interviews and formal depositions. They will have weekly reports for the state attorney general, and will produce a written final report which will include their findings; that report will be made available to the public.
The state senate oversight committee has previously said that the investigation will likely take about two months.
Attorney Debra Katz, who represents Charlotte Bennett, said that the appointment of Kim and Clark shows the attorney general "is taking this matter very seriously," and said they look forward to cooperating with the investigation.
"We are encouraged by the experience and background of the attorneys who will be investigating Charlotte's claims and expect the investigation will extend to the claims of the other women who we know to be out there," said Katz. " It is important that this investigation isn't just centered around what Governor Cuomo said and did. It must also focus on the culture of secrecy, abuse and fear that he fostered among his staff — frequently in violation oft he very laws he signed to protect workers from sexual harassment."
Of the latest allegations made by Karen Hinton, once one of Cuomo's top aides and consultants in his days as HUD secretary, the governor says they are "not true." Hinton alleges that Cuomo hugged her in an "inappropriate" and "unethical" embrace in a California hotel rooms 21 years ago. She says the then-Cabinet member made a pass at her during a meeting that was supposed to be about a news conference. She says Cuomo hugged her – and she says she could physically feel he was sexually aroused.
"He started asking me personal questions. I was uncomfortable with that conversation. So I stood up to leave and he walked across from his couch and embraced me intimately. It was not just a hug. It was an intimate embrace. I pulled away. He brought me back. I pulled away again and I said 'look I need some sleep, I am going,'" Hinton told News 4 in her first TV interview about the incident.
"It was inappropriate. We both were married. I worked for him and it was too much to make it so personal and intimate," she said.
Cuomo denied Hinton's claims.
"Every woman has a right to come forward, that's true. But the truth also matters and what she says is not true. She has been a long-time political adversary of mine," Cuomo said Sunday.
The governor has denied many of the allegations, while offering an apology to anyone who interpreted his actions as "unwanted flirtation." He previously said he would "fully cooperate" with any investigation.
“The facts will come out” in the attorney general's investigation, he said, reiterating his position that he “never knew at the time” that he was making anyone feel uncomfortable.
The governor did not answer questions Monday after appearing at the Javits Center, but his aides said that he will hold another news conference later in the week.
So far, at least five women in the past two weeks have come forward accusing the governor of inappropriate physical and verbal behavior. In addition to the state attorney general's investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made by former aides, a growing number of state lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle say the governor must resign from his post.
But the governor has shown no indication he will do any such thing.
"There is no way I resign. Let's do the attorney general's investigation, let's get the findings and then let's go from there," Cuomo said in a Sunday conference call. ""I was elected by the people of the state, I wasn't elected by politicians. I'm not going to resign because of allegations."
Cuomo's office initially selected former federal judge Barbara Jones to conduct the review with no limits on its scope but because one of the governor's closest friends is her law partner, the announcement was met with calls for a "truly independent investigation."
Cuomo himself has appointed a special prosecutor in 2018 to explore allegations that former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, abused four women during what were supposed to be romantic encounters. The special prosecutor ultimately didn't bring any charges. In a twist of fate, Cuomo at the time called on Schneiderman to resign over the public allegations of assault.
In addition to sexual harassment claims from former senior staffer Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, a former executive assistant and health policy adviser, Anna Ruch told the New York Times that the governor touched the small of her exposed back and asked if he could kiss her within moments of meeting at a wedding in 2019.
A photo from the event shows Cuomo with his hands around Ruch's face. She said he made her feel "uncomfortable and embarrassed" when he asked to kiss her.
Bennett, 25, said Cuomo quizzed her about her sex life, asked if she felt age made a difference in relationships and said he was fine dating "anyone above the age of 22." Bennett said she believed he was gauging her interest in an affair. Cuomo has denied making advances on Bennett.
Boylan, 36, said Cuomo commented on her appearance inappropriately, kissed her without her consent and went out of his way to touch her on her lower back, arms and legs. Cuomo has denied Boylan’s allegations.
The Wall Street Journal reported that according to Ana Liss, a policy and operations aide from 2013 to 2015, Cuomo asked if she had a boyfriend, called her "sweetheart," touched her lower back and once kissed her hand as she rose from a desk. Liss told the paper it was part of a pattern of behavior that she felt demeaned her achievements simply because she was a woman.
Cuomo also directly addressed the statements published Saturday from Liss: "That's my way of doing friendly banter. I take pictures with people at ceremonial events. We take pictures with people. If the question is going to be how many people did you take pictures with... but I never meant to make anyone feel unwelcome in any way. If customs change, then I'll change the customs and behaviors."
The allegations from Liss were accompanied by claims from former Cuomo staffers who similarly alleged of a "toxic" workplace, and one where young women were purportedly asked routinely about their dating lives.
On Monday, Liss addressed the work environment at the administration, telling NBC affiliate WHEC in Rochester that they would characterize anyone who spoke out against the governor as "a liar, a loser, a nobody," and said they kept "personnel files." She said in her view, the administration promoted an attitude of "Put up. Shut up. Be a good girl."
In addition to those claims, Cuomo also faces allegations of verbal abuse and threats by a lawmaker as well as a federal probe into how his administration handled COVID nursing home deaths.
Queens assemblyman Ron Kim 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. Cuomo's spokespeople have denied any wrongdoing in that specific instance, or in general with the handling of nursing homes.
As a result of the flurry of scandals, New York legislators on Friday voted to strip the governor of his pandemic-linked emergency powers and return matters like lockdowns to local control. in more bad news for Cuomo, a new poll found that 57 percent of New Yorkers want a new governor next year.
It has been 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.
Dozens of Democrats at all levels of government have called on the three-term governor and political scion to resign. New York leaders have been divided on what should come next, but support behind the attorney general's investigation remains unanimous.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaking just hours before Cuomo's Sunday call, said the allegations were "deeply troubling" and "in the very capable hands" of the attorney general, who he said "will turn over every stone and not let outside interference occur." Hillary Clinton, another longtime Cuomo ally, also called for patience with the investigation, saying she was "confident" in James and that "we should all wait to see what those results are."
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins lent her voice to calls for Cuomo's resignation on Sunday, days after saying she would make such a demand if another credible allegation came to light.
"Everyday there is another account that is drawing away from the business of government. We have allegations about sexual harassment, a toxic work environment, the loss of credibility surrounding the COVID-19 nursing home data and questions about the construction of a major infrastructure project," she said. "New York is still in the midst of this pandemic and is still facing the societal, health and economic impacts of it. We need to govern without daily distraction. For the good of the state Governor Cuomo must resign."
Mayor de Blasio once again came out not exactly standing with Cuomo, calling it "a situation where fewer and fewer people are believing what the governor's saying, and that needs to be addressed."
Meanwhile, a group of 21 women in the state Assembly released a statement Monday asking that James be given time to complete her probe. The group included the the no. 2 Democrat in the Assembly, Majority Leader Crystal People-Stokes.
“We continue to support our Attorney General, the first woman, and the first African American woman to be elected to this position, as she launches this investigation,” it said. “We request that she be allowed the appropriate time to complete her investigation rather than undermine her role and responsibility as the chief law enforcement officer of the state of New York.”
Assembly member Pat Fahy, who signed the letter from the 21 female lawmakers, said that she believes calls for a resignation or impeachment are undermining James’ ability to investigate harassment allegations.
“We have somebody we presumably trust and we finally have a women, a woman of color as the chief law enforcement officer for the state,” Fahy said. “Let’s suddenly not undermine her.”
Another signer, Assembly member Alicia Hyndman, said she wants Cuomo to receive “due process.”
“These calls I don’t think should be tried out in the press,” she said. “If the findings of the attorney general says that he is guilty of sexual harassment, at that point the governor should step down.”
Assembly Democrats were caucusing Monday as legislators face increasing pressure to take a stance.
The Associated Press reported on a brief conversation before Cuomo's afternoon press call where he told Stewart-Cousins the legislature would have to impeach him if they want him out of office, according to a person briefed by someone on the call. The AP gave the person anonymity because the call was meant to be private.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, whose chamber would initiate any possible impeachment proceedings against Cuomo, had previously thrown his support behind the calls for an independent investigation now being launched by the attorney general. But on Sunday, Heastie questioned the governor's ability to lead under such turmoil saying it was time for the governor to "seriously consider" his position.
"I'm not distracted by it and I don't think anyone should be distracted by it either," Cuomo said of the allegations of sexual harassment.
The governor's staff also lost another female member since the scandals started growing, with Counsel to the Governor Kumiki Gibson leaving to take a new position and Cuomo aide Beth Garvey taking her place. As with the other departures, the administration said that Gibson leaving was long-planned and had nothing to do with the ongoing crises.