NEW YORK - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked New York Attorney General Letitia James to select a private lawyer to do an independent review of claims he sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him.
"The Governor's office wants a thorough and independent review that is above reproach and beyond political interference. Therefore, the Governor's office has asked Attorney General Tish James to select a qualified private lawyer to do an independent review of allegations of sexual harassment. The independent lawyer will be legally designated as a Special Independent Deputy Attorney General and granted all powers provided under Section 63(8) of the Executive Law. As necessary, other lawyers from the appointed lawyer's firm shall be similarly designated to assist in the review. The lawyer shall report publicly their findings. The Governor's office will voluntarily cooperate fully," Beth Garvey, Special Counsel and Senior Advisor to the Governor said in a statement Sunday evening.
Cuomo also issued an apology, saying:
"I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm. I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends...
"At work, sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way I do it in public and private. You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times...
"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.
"To be clear, I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to.
"That's why I have asked for an outside independent review that looks at these allegations."
Several Democratic lawmakers in New York have called on Cuomo to resign after a second former aide claimed that he had sexually harassed her.
In recent weeks, he has been assailed over revelations that his administration had underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. A state assemblyman went public with complaints that Cuomo had threatened to destroy him politically over statements he made in the press, prompting other politicians to share stories about having been bullied by the governor.
Over several hours Sunday, James and other leading party officials rejected two proposals by the governor that they said could potentially have limited the independence of the investigation.
Under his first plan, announced Saturday evening, 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 the claims and issue a public report.
James said neither plan went far enough.
"To clarify, I do not accept the governor's proposal," James tweeted on Sunday afternoon. "The state's Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral."
Many of the biggest names in New York politics lined up quickly behind James.
The state legislature's two top leaders, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both said they wanted her to handle the investigation.
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.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, "There should be an independent review looking into these allegations." She said that's something President Joe Biden supports "and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible."
The recent harassment allegations represent a deepening crisis for Cuomo, who just months ago was at the height of his popularity for his leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our governor is a manipulative, controlling, abusive, power obsessed, predator," State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou tweeted Saturday night. "Please resign."
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the State legislature to immediately revoke Cuomo's emergency powers and for independent investigations to be held into the deaths at local nursing homes and the sexual harassment allegations.
"We cannot allow this behavior to continue and go unchecked," tweeted Assemblymember Harvey Epstein. "If we do not act now, we become complicit in his actions. With this in mind, I am joining the call for Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign."
Charlotte Bennet, a 25-year-old health policy adviser in the Democratic governor's administration until November, told The New York Times that Cuomo had asked her about her sex life and if she had slept with older men.
Another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, recently accused Cuomo of subjecting her to an unwanted kiss and inappropriate comments. Cuomo denied the allegations.
"Ms. Bennett was a hardworking and valued member of our team during COVID. She has every right to speak out," Cuomo said in a statement released Saturday evening. "When she came to me and opened up about being a sexual assault survivor and how it shaped her and her ongoing efforts to create an organization that empowered her voice to help other survivors, I tried to be supportive and helpful. Ms. Bennett's initial impression was right: I was trying to be a mentor to her. I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any 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."
"This situation cannot and should not be resolved in the press; I believe the best way to get to the truth is through a full and thorough outside review and I am directing all state employees to comply with that effort," Cuomo continued. "I ask all New Yorkers to await the findings of the review so that they know the facts before making any judgements. I will have no further comment until the review has concluded."
"Everyone deserves to have their voice heard and taken seriously. I support an independent review," Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said in a statement.
Some members of Congress representing New York, along with several top State Democratic lawmakers, however, said any investigation should be placed out of the control of the governor’s office, including the selection of the investigator.
"There must be an independent investigation - not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General," tweeted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
"The accused CANNOT appoint the investigator. PERIOD," tweeted U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Long Island Democrat. "The continued allegations are deeply disturbing and concerning. The behavior described has no place in the workplace. A truly independent investigation must begin immediately."
Bennett did not immediately return a Twitter message from The Associated Press seeking comment.
She told the Times her most disturbing interaction with Cuomo happened June 5 when she was alone with him in his Albany office. She said Cuomo started asking her about her personal life, her thoughts on romantic relationships, including whether age was a factor, and said he was open to relationships with women in their 20s.
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Bennett said she also dodged a question from Cuomo about hugging by saying she missed hugging her parents. She said Cuomo never touched her.
"I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared," Bennett told the Times. "And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job."
Bennett said Cuomo also told her he wanted a girlfriend, "preferably in the Albany area," and he was lonely since breaking up with Sandra Lee, a chef and TV personality.
Bennett also said she tried to change the subject when Cuomo's comments were making her uncomfortable, telling him she was thinking of getting a tattoo. Cuomo, she told the Times, responded by suggesting she put the tattoo on her buttocks.
Bennett said she informed Cuomo's chief of staff, Jill DesRosiers, about the interaction less than a week later. She said she was transferred to another job on the opposite side of the Capitol. At the end of June she also gave a statement to a special counsel for Cuomo.
Garvey acknowledged that the complaint had been made and that Bennett had been transferred as a result to a position in which she had already been interested.
Garvey said in a statement that Bennett's allegations "did not include a claim of physical contact or inappropriate sexual conduct" and Bennett "was consulted regarding the resolution, and expressed satisfaction and appreciation for the way in which it was handled."
"The determination reached based on the information Ms Bennett provided was that no further action was required which was consistent with Ms Bennett’s wishes," Garvey said.
Bennett told the newspaper she decided not to push for any further action by the administration. She said she liked her new job and "wanted to move on."
Jones, who would oversee the investigation, was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in 1995. As a judge, she struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act denying federal recognition of same-sex marriage in a ruling later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
After retiring, she joined the law firm Bracewell LLP, where her work focuses on corporate compliance and investigations.
Her arbitration work included a 2014 decision throwing out Ray Rice’s suspension by the NFL for punching his fiancé in an elevator in an attack recorded on video.
It remained uncertain whether lawmakers would accept her appointment.
Asked if Jones’ review is "truly independent," Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, said, "No it is not, and it should be done by the attorney general’s office."
State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a Republican, said state Attorney General Letitia James should appoint a special prosecutor.
"The review suggested by someone handpicked by the Governor himself, is an outrageous, completely unacceptable idea. We need a truly independent investigation," Ortt said in a statement.
Boylan said in Twitter postings Saturday night that she was proud of Bennett and alleged Cuomo "tried to destroy many, including me, in the press."
"You are not going to derail or destroy any more lives," she tweeted.
With the Associated Press.