New York

‘Can I Kiss You?': Cuomo Faces New Accusation From 2019 Wedding as Inquiry Starts

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

  • Multiple Democrats in the state legislature have called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign over new sexual harassment allegations
  • Two former aides have now accused him of inappropriate behavior, as has a woman he met at a 2019 wedding; meanwhile, 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

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was expected to address the public on Monday and deliver another coronavirus briefing he has become synonymous with over the past 12 months, but this time to mark one year since the state reported its first case. Instead, the governor, marred by controversy, was noticeably absent.

The fallout over multiple sexual harassment allegations followed the governor into Monday, despite his growing absence from the camera, and one day after he acknowledged for the first time that some of his behavior with women "may have been insensitive or too personal,” and said he would cooperate with a sexual harassment investigation led by the state's attorney general.

In a statement released amid mounting criticism from within his own party, the Democrat maintained he had never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone. But he said he had teased people about their personal lives in an attempt to be “playful.”

“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," he said. (Read his full statement here.)

It's an apology called into question by some, like Mayor Bill de Blasio, and outright rejected by others, especially former aide Charlotte Bennett whose allegations published over the weekend engulfed the governor and seemingly prompted a rare statement of admission from Cuomo. In her first public statement on Monday, released through attorney Debra Katz, Bennett said the governor "has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior."

“As we know, abusers — particularly those with tremendous amounts of power — are often repeat offenders who engage in manipulative tactics to diminish allegations, blame victims, deny wrongdoing and escape consequences,” wrote Bennett.

Hours later, The New York Times, which published Bennett's allegations over the weekend, detailed accusations from a third woman of an unwanted physical advance at a wedding in September 2019.

Anna Ruch, not a current or former staffer like Cuomo's two previous accusers of misconduct, attended the same New York City wedding reception where she met the governor. In her recollection of events to the Times, Ruch said Cuomo placed a hand on her back not long after being introduced at the reception. She removed his hand and was met by another advance as he brushed her checks and asked for a kiss, she said.

"Can I kiss you?" Ruch said he asked. She is 30 years Cuomo's junior.

Shaken by the exchange, Ruch said she asked a friend if he had kissed her as she pulled away. The friend saw Cuomo kiss Ruch on the check, she told the Times. Both Bennett and Lindsey Boylan, the prior two women who have accused Cuomo of misconduct, expressed their support for Ruch after she came forward with her story. Bennett also said she and Boylan would stand with any other person who said they were harassed by the governor.

"To the Governor's survivors: I am here. Lindsey is here. You do not have to say a single word. But if you choose to speak your truth, we will be standing with you. I promise," she said.

Boyland tweeted later Monday about Ruch’s alleged experience with the governor, saying, “This doesn’t make me feel validated. It makes me feel sick.”

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. NBC New York's Adam Harding reports.

Cuomo, one of America’s most prominent governors, is facing the most serious challenge of his decade in office following claims he sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him. Democrats in New York and around the nation aren’t rallying to his side, leaving him increasingly isolated from traditional allies.

Monday evening's allegations prompted calls for resignation from Rep. Kathleen Rice, who previously advocated for an independent investigation alongside at least seven other Congressional lawmakers from New York.

State lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are weighing what next steps, if any, should be taken in the days and weeks ahead. There have been calls from both sides of the political aisle for the governor's resignation, including Democratic New York State Senators John Liu, Alessandra Biaggi and Gustavo Rivera, and Democratic Assembly members Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Ron Kim. Many more in the legislature spoke out in favor of stripping Cuomo of his COVID emergency powers.

Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt, a frequent critic of the governor's, has repeatedly endorsed such action, and has also called on him to "step aside." The move has Democrat support as well, including that of Sen. Mike Gianaris, deputy majority leader, who said it's an "open question" whether Cuomo can remain in office, calling the allegations "very disturbing."

Cuomo's partial admission of wrongdoing came after a day of wrangling over who should investigate his workplace behavior.

By day's end, Cuomo acquiesced to demands that Attorney General Letitia James control the inquiry.

James received the formal referral letter from the governor by Monday, officially giving her office subpoena power and allowing her to deputize an outside law firm for a "rigorous and independent investigation." Her office said it may take a few days before an appointee is selected.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has acknowledged for the first time that some of his behavior with women “may have been insensitive or too personal." He said Sunday he would cooperate with a sexual harassment investigation led by the state’s attorney general. NBC New York's Adam Harding reports.

“This is not a responsibility we take lightly,” said James, a Democrat who has been, at times, allied with Cuomo but is independently elected and had emerged as a consensus choice to lead a probe. "As the letter states, at the close of the review, the findings will be disclosed in a public report."

The letter, from the governor's special counsel, also states that weekly status reports will not be shared with the governor as typically mandated by law for investigations referred to the AG's office. This will allow the investigation to progress without the subject of the inquiry, in this case Cuomo himself, getting regular updates.

Calls for an investigation mounted after a second former employee of Cuomo's administration went public Saturday with harassment claims.

Bennett, a low-level aide in the governor’s administration until November, told The New York Times Cuomo asked questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men, and made other comments she interpreted as gauging her interest in an affair.

Her accusation came days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development adviser, elaborated on harassment allegations she first made in December. Boylan said Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and comments about her appearance.

The governor was already under fire for accusations of verbal harassment and mishandling of nursing homes. Anjali Hemphill reports.

Cuomo, 63, said he had intended to be a mentor for Bennett, who is 25. He has denied Boylan's allegations.

Over several hours Sunday, James and other leading party officials rejected two of Cuomo's proposals for how an investigation might proceed.

Under his first plan, a retired federal judge picked by Cuomo, Barbara Jones, would have reviewed his workplace behavior. In the second proposal, announced Sunday morning in an attempt to appease legislative leaders, Cuomo asked James and the state’s chief appeals court judge, Janet DiFiore, to jointly appoint a lawyer to investigate and issue a public report.

James rejected both plans, demanding a formal referral giving her office authority to subpoena documents and witness testimony.

Many of the biggest names in New York politics lined up behind James.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both Democrats, said they wanted the attorney general to handle the investigation. Republican leaders had, for days, called on James to launch a probe.

Already under fire for his administration's handling of nursing home data of COVID-19 deaths, Gov. Cuomo is embroiled in another scandal, this time involving harassment claims from a former aide. NBC New York's Gilma Avalos reports.

New York’s two U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both said an independent investigation was essential.

“These allegations are serious and deeply concerning. As requested by Attorney General James, the matter should be referred to her office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power,” Gillibrand said.

“The women who have come forward with serious and credible charges against Governor Cuomo deserve to be heard and to be treated with dignity. The independent investigation must have due process and respect for everyone involved," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday.

The governor's counterpart in the Garden State said the reports of misconduct were "troubling" and supporting the ongoing efforts to fully investigate the allegations. Gov. Phil Murphy said the matters should be "completely and thoroughly investigated."

Cuomo's statement that women had misinterpreted comments that were intended to be jokes was met with outrage from some people, who said he appeared to be blaming the women.

“Is it ‘playful’ to touch one’s employees’ legs & kiss them on the lips against their will? Bc better men than A Cuomo have been fired for that," tweeted former Fox News and NBC journalist Megyn Kelly, whose sexual harassment allegations against late Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes helped lead to his ouster.

"That's not an apology," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday morning. "He seemed to be saying 'I was just kidding around.' Sexual harassment is not funny and it needs to be taken seriously. He was just taking himself off the hook."

The mayor repeated his desire to see an investigation into the harassment claims as well as the governor's handling of nursing homes throughout the pandemic. He didn't outright call for Cuomo's resignation, but told CNN's Jake Tapper he should if the allegations are proven correct. In the meantime, de Blasio supports the legislature stripping the governor's emergency powers.

“I think more and more people are going to be talking about what they’ve experienced, and I think as people see more and more evidence it’s going to be clear this is not the way any leader should treat anybody," de Blasio said. “I think a lot of truth is coming out, I think more truth will come out."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden also supported an independent review that "should move forward as quickly as possible.”

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

The furor comes amid a new round of criticism over Cuomo's leadership style and actions his administration took to protect his reputation as a leader in the coronavirus pandemic.

Cuomo won praise as a strong hand during last spring’s crisis of rising case counts and overflowing morgues. His book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published in October.

But in recent weeks his administration was forced to revise its count of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes following criticism that it had undercounted the fatalities to blunt accusations that some of his administration's policies had made the situation worse.

James fueled some of that criticism by issuing a report saying the Cuomo administration had undercounted deaths.

Now, his support is eroding faster.

“Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett’s detailed accounts of sexual harassment by Gov. Cuomo are extremely serious and painful to read,” U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter Sunday. “There must be an independent investigation — not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General.”

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

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 last week, he had held at least three of those weekly since COVID hospitalizations began to climb ahead of the holidays.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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