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NY AG Seeks Referral on Cuomo Sexual Harassment Claims With Subpoena Power

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Credit: Gov. Cuomo's Office

Sexual Harassment Claims Against Gov. Andrew Cuomo

A second woman has come forward and accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. Cuomo denies that allegations and has asked a former federal judge to conduct an informal investigation. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James is now asking the governor for a referral to appoint an investigator with subpoena powers.

Charlotte Bennett, a 25 year old former executive assistant to Cuomo who told her story to the New York Times on Saturday, joins Lindsey Boylan in accusing Cuomo of harassing, intimidating and inappropriate behavior.

Bennett said that, beginning last spring, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor began showing what she felt was an inappropriate interest in her, asking her during a private in his office questions about her sex life and whether she was monogamous in her relationships. 

Bennett said the 63-year-old governor asked her whether she had ever had sex with older men, and told her he was open to having relationships with women in their 20s. Bennett requested a job transfer with an office on the opposite end of the Capitol.

The allegations come three days after Lindsey Boylan, a former advisor to Cuomo on economic development policy, said the governor asked her to play strip poker with him while on a 2017 business flight.

She said he also made inappropriate remarks about her appearance, and touched her without her permission, including delivering an unwelcome kiss while she was alone with him in his office.

Cuomo, who is already under fire for withholding  data that showed nearly twice as many residents at long-term care facilities died of COVID-19 than was previously disclosed, denied both allegations.

He first addressed Boylan’s accusations back in December, when Boylan alluded to the incidents in a tweet.

“It’s not true,” Cuomo said in December. “Look, I fought for and I believe a woman has the right to come forward and express her opening and express issues and concerns that she has. But it’s just not true.”

Cuomo did not speak publicly about Bennett’s charges, but in a statement said that while he respects Bennett’s right to speak out, he "never made advances"  toward her and never intended to act in a way that was inappropriate.

“The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo also announced that he had chosen someone to conduct an independent investigation. His counsel, in a separate statement, said that all staff had been instructed to cooperate with former federal judge Barbara Jones. 

Jones, among other things, served as an arbitrator in a domestic violence case between former football player Ray Rice and the National Football League. 

She ruled, in part, that the NFL was wrong to further punish Rice after a video was released that showed the extent of the beating he gave to his girlfriend to be much more severe than previously reported. 

Jones ruled that Rice could not be disciplined twice for the same offense. The ruling at the time was seen as a judgement on the NFL’s mishandling of the incident.    

Jones was also a law partner of Cuomo’s long-time friend and colleague Steven Cohen, who now chairs the state’s economic development agency. Cohen was the only Cuomo associate to publicly defend the governor after Boylan made her charges.

Cohen, on Thursday, said while Cuomo can be a difficult boss, he’s never witnessed any behaviors that crossed the line into harassment.

“I have never seen anything of the like of what Ms Boylan has described,” Cohen said. “His conduct has always been in my presence, with the members of other staff, appropriate. Not that it is always fun loving and good time, but it is always appropriate.”

Jones’ connection to Cohen raised a red flag among Democrats, as well as Republicans. Leading Democrats, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, asked for state Attorney General Letitia James to investigate.

Midday on Sunday, James formally asked the governor to give her the legal referral needed to appoint an investigator with subpoena powers.

A report from James' office on the governor’s nursing home policies during the pandemic, which said Cuomo undercounted nursing home deaths by 50%, has already led to calls for investigations, and even for Cuomo’s impeachment.  

Beth Garvey, special counsel to Cuomo, made a counter-offer in a statement. Jones would still conduct her own probe, but an additional investigation would be completed by a non-political lawyer in private practice, chosen jointly by James and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Garvey, a few moments later, amended her statement, saying it would be up to James and DiFiore to set the criteria for the qualifications of the investigator.

The Cuomo administration’s proposal set off a new round of questions from Democratic lawmakers, who wondered why the state’s chief judge needed to be involved at all when there's existing law to allow the Attorney General to oversee the investigation.

“This is not the process laid out under Section 63 of the Executive Law relating to referring cases to the AG for investigation. 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?” Sen. Andrew Gounardes, D-Brooklyn, said.

Republicans, meanwhile are calling for the governor’s resignation. 

“This is the story of a failing administration,” said Senate Minority Leader Robert Orrt, who said the sexual harassment allegations, along with the nursing home controversy, show the governor has “repeatedly broken the public’s trust”.