New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) received a formal referral granting her request to launch an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment lodged against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Monday. The governor had previously been averse to that request but was forced to relent after days of mounting criticism from leaders across the Empire State.
Notably, James said the findings of the investigation will be released in a public report.
“Today, the executive chamber transmitted a referral letter to our office, providing us the authority to move forward with an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment claims made against Governor Cuomo,” James said in a statement. “This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously. As the letter states, at the close of the review, the findings will be disclosed in a public report.”
The official and long-awaited referral quickly led to a high-profile legal move.
Former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett announced that Debra Katz—the lead attorney for Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford during Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018—would be representing her during the Cuomo investigation. Late Saturday, The New York Times ran a report alleging that Cuomo groomed her while she worked in the governor’s office. Cuomo allegedly used his position of power to ask inappropriate questions about Bennett’s love life, appeared fixated on her being a survivor of sexual assault, and when she was considering a tattoo, he suggested she get it on her backside so no one would see it if she wore a dress.
“Ms. Bennett will cooperate fully with the Attorney General’s investigation,” Katz said on Monday. “We are confident that no disinterested investigator who reviews this evidence would adopt the Governor’s self-serving characterization of his behavior as mentorship or, at worst, unwanted flirtation. He was not acting as a mentor and his remarks were not misunderstood by Ms. Bennett. He was abusing his power over her for sex. This is textbook sexual harassment.”
The high-profile attorney’s statement sketched out the details of what she and her client hope for going forward:
If, as the Governor now acknowledges, he talked to young women who worked for his administration in this manner, the problem is a systemic one and the Attorney General must investigate whether other women were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment. It is also critical for the Attorney General to determine if anyone in the Cuomo Administration enabled his behavior. We call on the Attorney General to investigate the failure of Governor Cuomo’s chief of staff and special counsel to fully investigate Ms. Bennett’s allegation. They had a clear legal obligation to do so.
Bennett’s story followed earlier allegations against the governor raised by another former Cuomo aide, Lindsey Boylan, who claims that the governor propositioned her for strip poker and forcibly kissed her without her consent.
On Sunday, AG James announced that she would be appointing a special deputy to conduct an independent investigation into the Boylan and Bennett allegations.
“We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation,” James said.
The first-term attorney general also made note of the path that led to this point.
“Attorney General James released an initial statement calling for a referral from Governor Cuomo to investigate the allegations of sexual harassment, and, later, clarified that nothing less than a referral under Executive Law § 63(8) would be accepted,” the Sunday evening press release said—and that’s what her office received from the embattled governor on Monday afternoon. But not without that aforementioned fight.
Late Saturday, Cuomo’s office announced that they would be launching an “independent review” led by former judge Barbara Jones, notably the special master in the Michael Cohen case. Democratic Party lawmakers in New York instantly rubbished that idea—dismissing the notion that a review conducted by a Cuomo appointee could in any way be termed “independent.”
Several lawmakers said that James was the only person with authority who could be trusted to conduct the investigation.
Cuomo quickly moved to appease his critics by announcing that he would instead refer the investigation to James and Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals Janet DiFiore. James and other Democrats just as quickly refused to accept that compromise.
“This is not the process laid out under Section 63 of the Executive Law relating to referring cases to the AG for investigation,” New York State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a longtime Cuomo ally who represents the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge said via Twitter. “Nor is this what the AG asked for in her statement. The Chief Judge is not supposed to have a role in that process, so why does she have one here?”
DiFiore is a Cuomo loyalist who owes her current position to the governor. She was recently the subject of headlines after it was reported that Cuomo had pulled strings to ensure that DiFiore’s daughter obtained a seat on the state Supreme Court in the Ninth Judicial District. That move drew criticism from several Democratic Party leaders throughout New York but the scandal quickly fell away as the nursing home deaths coverup and sexual harassment allegations took center stage.
“To clarify, I do not accept the governor’s proposal,” James said in her own statement. “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. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted.”
Cuomo eventually gave in to that demand—hours after apologizing for his conduct in a broad brush statement regarding Boylan’s and Bennett’s allegations.
Bennett took issue with the governor’s apology in a statement provided to Law&Crime.
“The Governor has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior,” she said. “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. It took the Governor 24 hours and significant backlash to allow for a truly independent investigation. These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice.”
“To the Governor’s survivors: I am here,” Bennett’s statement continued. “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.”
The Wall Street Journal reported mid-afternoon on Monday that Cuomo had lawyered up by hiring “prominent white-collar defense attorney” Elkan Abramowitz to represent him during the nursing home deaths inquiry. A former federal prosecutor, Abramowitz has also represented Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein.
It’s unclear at this time if Cuomo will retain or has retained outside counsel for the sexual harassment investigation.
Update, 7:43 p.m.: The New York Times also reported Monday that Anna Ruch has accused Gov. Cuomo of making an unwanted advance at a NYC wedding reception in Sept. 2019. The report included a photo of Cuomo putting his hands on Ruch’s face in a crowded room. Ruch said she had never met Cuomo before but he asked if he could give her a kiss.
Alberto Luperon contributed to this report.
[image via Spencer Platt/Getty Images]
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