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Under Siege Over Sex Harassment Claims, Cuomo Offers Apology

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Governor Cuomo said on Sunday that he may have been “insensitive or too personal, and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended.”

A state inquiry into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s remarks to a 25-year-old aide will now be led by an “independent lawyer,” his office said.A state inquiry into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s remarks to a 25-year-old aide will now be led by an “independent lawyer,” his office said.Credit…Pool photo by Seth Wenig

  • Feb. 28, 2021

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday sought to stem the growing political fallout over fresh allegations of sexual harassment, acknowledging that he may have made inappropriate remarks that could “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation” to a young female aide during private meetings last spring.

Mr. Cuomo, 63, said his comments — including those which emerged in an account from the aide, Charlotte Bennett — were an extension of life spent at work, where he sometimes “teased people about their personal lives and relationships.”

“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,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “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.”

The response from the governor seemed to reflect the gravity of Ms. Bennett’s accusations, and those of another former aide last week, as well as the potential damage that they could cause to Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat.

Mr. Cuomo, who emerged as a national leader during the pandemic, also repeated his calls for an independent investigation of his own behavior, though the decision over who would oversee that inquiry has already proved torturous. His initial choice of a former federal judge to lead the investigation was met with overwhelming criticism, as was his second suggestion that Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, be paired with Janet DiFiore, the chief judge on New York State’s highest court, to jointly pick someone to investigate the matter. Ms. James rejected that proposal.

Finally, late Sunday, Mr. Cuomo relented again, saying in a statement that he would grant subpoena power to whomever Ms. James designated as the outside investigator, as Ms. James had demanded.

In a series of interviews with The New York Times last week, Ms. Bennett said Mr. Cuomo had asked her about elements of her sex life, including whether she practiced monogamy and had ever slept with older men. She also recounted that Mr. Cuomo told her that he was open to dating women in their 20s and spoke to her in discomfiting ways about her own experience with sexual assault.

She said she believed the governor — who also complained of being lonely and wanting a girlfriend in Albany — was making sexual overtures toward her.

“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Ms. Bennett, 25, said. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

With his administration reeling, Mr. Cuomo sought once again to explain his comments, saying “questions have been raised about some of my past interactions with people in the office.”

Mr. Cuomo said that he “never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm” and insisted that he “never inappropriately touched” or propositioned anyone. Ms. Bennett did not accuse the governor of touching her.

“I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said.

Despite the governor’s explanation, a chorus of fellow Democrats have called for investigations, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and progressive stars like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Politicians from both parties expressed outrage at the allegations, amid a growing sense that Mr. Cuomo, long a master of New York’s hardball politics, was in a precarious position. Some called for an impeachment hearing and others pressed for his resignation.

The criticism reached all the way to the White House, where Jen Psaki, the press secretary for President Biden, a longtime ally of Mr. Cuomo’s, said the president endorses an investigation into allegations she described as “serious.”

“It was hard to read that story, as a woman,” Ms. Psaki said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Mr. Cuomo seemed to immediately realize the potential damage, asking on Saturday night for “all New Yorkers to await the findings of the review so that they know the facts before making any judgments.”

The allegations about Mr. Cuomo’s behavior toward women only compounded his recent political problems, which include a federal inquiry into his administration’s purposeful undercount of coronavirus-related deaths of nursing home residents.

But the harassment accusations could prove even more damaging for a governor who has prided himself on advancing protections for women in the workplace and who lamented the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court as a blow to women’s rights.

“There are serious questions about his ability to retain his power,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College.

The governor’s attempts to control the narrative and the course of the investigations quickly ran aground, as he was forced to retreat from a plan to have Ms. Bennett’s claims investigated by Barbara S. Jones, a former federal judge who has close ties to Mr. Cuomo’s former top aide.

The sputtering efforts to establish an investigation came even as outrage over Ms. Bennett’s claims suffused social media and network news, recasting Mr. Cuomo — once considered a heroic figure in the state and national fight against the coronavirus — as a villain.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, long the target of Mr. Cuomo’s attacks, issued a lengthy statement lamenting and chronicling the governor’s recent failures, including “detailed, documented accounts of sexual harassment, multiple instances of intimidation and the admitted withholding of information on the deaths of over 15,000 people.”

Indeed, Mr. Cuomo’s brusque and sometimes abrasive approach toward fellow Democrats had left him with few defenders on Sunday, even as longtime foils sharpened their rhetoric.

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a frequent critic of the governor, called on him to resign. “You are a monster, and it is time for you to go,” she wrote on Twitter. “Now.”

Her call for resignation was still something of an outlier in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, though the leaders of both chambers had called for independent investigations of Mr. Cuomo.

A smattering of officials have urged the Legislature to impeach the governor — echoing a sentiment found on a billboard near the Capitol that simply read, “Impeach!”

Still, that option seems unlikely. The last New York governor to have been impeached was Gov. William Sulzer, in 1913, according to Roderick Hills, an N.Y.U. law professor.

There are also few parameters in the State Constitution defining impeachable conduct.

“There’s no standard for impeachment really in New York,” said Eric Lane, a professor of public law at Hofstra University and a former counsel to the Senate Democrats. “There’s a very vague statute.”

Should a majority of Assembly members vote to impeach the governor, the State Senate would conduct the trial. The jurors would include senators and members of the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Judge DiFiore is the chief judge on that court, which may have complicated her role in any investigation.

A more likely scenario would involve lawmakers using this recent spate of scandals to reclaim the unilateral emergency powers they had granted the governor at the start of the pandemic. Those efforts had been seemingly slowed last week, as the State Assembly could not reach a consensus on a plan by the State Senate to strip Mr. Cuomo of those powers. Now, however, such a move could be more likely.

But Ms. Bennett’s testimonial also seemed to touch a deeper nerve, particularly in Albany, which has a long and sordid history of sexual harassment and misconduct.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Mr. Cuomo signed legislation establishing a range of workplace new protections, saying he wanted to “honor all the women” who have suffered pain and humiliation as a result of harassment.

“Let’s honor the women who have had the courage to come forward and tell their story,” he said in 2019.

In Mr. Cuomo’s statement on Sunday, he urged people not to contact Ms. Bennett to “express displeasure about her coming forward.”

Ms. Bennett’s disclosures came a few days after Lindsey Boylan, a former state economic development official, detailed her earlier accusation that Mr. Cuomo had harassed her on several occasions from 2016 to 2018. She accused the governor of giving her at one point an unsolicited kiss on the lips at his Manhattan office. Mr. Cuomo has denied the claims.

Erica Vladimer, a co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a collective of former state workers, said the governor should resign, noting that the separate accusations of the governor’s bullying tendencies fit the same theme.

“It’s not two separate sets of allegations,” she said. “It is two examples of longstanding abuse, harassment, retaliation and the culture of a hostile work environment.”

Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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