Two former aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have recently accused the governor of sexual harassment and misconduct, creating new scrutiny of a leader already facing questions over New York’s Covid-19 death count in nursing homes.
On Saturday, the New York Times reported that 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett alleges the governor repeatedly pestered her with questions about her personal life, asking her if she’d ever been with an older man, and telling her that he was open to relationships with women as young as 22 in a one-on-one meeting last May.
The Times report includes a number of unsettling details, like Bennett telling the governor that she had played soccer against his daughter before he later asked her if she would sleep with older men, or the governor remarking that she should put a tattoo she told him she was considering getting on her rear end so it wouldn’t show when she wore skirts or dresses.
Though Bennett was clear that no physical contact occurred, she later texted a friend that the conversation “was like the most explicit it could be,” in a text message reviewed by the Times.
After bringing the incident to Cuomo’s staff, Bennett was transferred out of her position working on the governor’s Covid-19 team into a new job as a health policy aide in an office on the opposite side of the state capitol.
Cuomo’s office denied any wrongdoing toward Bennett, telling the Times in a statement that he believed he’d been acting as a mentor. According to his statement, Cuomo said he “never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate,” though he didn’t deny asking Bennett personal questions.
The accusation follows a similar allegation made on Thursday, when former state government official Lindsey Boylan, currently a candidate for Manhattan borough president, published an essay on Medium that described months of unwanted and inappropriate attention from Cuomo between 2016 and 2018, culminating in an unsolicited and unwelcome kiss in the governor’s New York City office in 2018.
Boylan said she experienced a series of disturbing overtures from the governor, including communications between the governor’s staff and her boss inquiring into her whereabouts at events the governor would be attending, and an email from the governor’s staff relaying a message from Cuomo comparing Boylan’s looks to that of Lisa Shields, a woman said to be his former girlfriend.
“Stephanie Benton, Director of the Governor’s Offices, told me in an email on December 14, 2016 that the Governor suggested I look up images of Lisa Shields — his rumored former girlfriend — because ‘we could be sisters’ and I was ‘the better looking sister,’ wrote Boylan. “The Governor began calling me ‘Lisa’ in front of colleagues. It was degrading.”
Boylan says she was summoned to Cuomo’s office one evening in December 2016. Once alone with Boylan, the governor smirked and showed her a box of cigars given to him by former president Bill Clinton, which she took to be a reference to his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“The Governor must have sensed my fear because he finally let me out of the office,” wrote Boylan. “I tried to rationalize this incident in my head. At least he didn’t touch me. That made me feel safer.”
From that point, Boylan claims the harassment became more relentless — even as she purposely kept the governor at arm’s length — and culminated in a sudden, completely unwelcome kiss on the lips one day in 2018 as she tried to leave Cuomo’s office. “I was in shock, but I kept walking,” wrote Boylan. Boylan says she eventually left state government in order to escape the governor’s unwanted attention.
“Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false,” said Caitlin Girouard, the governor’s press secretary.
Cuomo launched an investigation — but critics worried about its independence
The governor has called for an independent investigation into Bennett’s allegations, asking the public to reserve judgement until the probe could be concluded.
Recent precedent in New York state is for the governor to defer to the state attorney general, who will appoint their own independent investigator into the governor’s actions. However, shortly after the allegations were made public, Cuomo decided to appoint an investigator — former Manhattan federal judge and Clinton appointee Barbara Jones — himself, opening himself up to criticism even from his own allies.
Some critics questioned whether Jones could be unbiased, noting that she is directly connected with former Cuomo adviser Steve Cohen through her employment at law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, which she joined in 2013. More broadly, however, officials — including a number of Democrats — asked whether someone selected by Cuomo could conduct a truly independent investigation.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) released a statement Saturday asking Cuomo to refer the investigation to the state attorney general. “As has become standard practice in the State of New York when allegations relate directly to the Executive, Governor Cuomo should refer the matter to the Attorney General, who should, in turn, appoint an independent investigator,” read Nadler’s statement.
My statement on the allegations of sexual harassment by Governor Cuomo: pic.twitter.com/3aIniWFzJ0— Rep. Nadler (@RepJerryNadler) February 28, 2021
Nadler was joined by several other Democratic New York lawmakers, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kathleen Rice. And officials in the state legislature, like state Senate investigations committee chair James Skoufis, also called for an independent investigation, as did New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who said, “everyone deserves to have their voice heard and taken seriously.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James said Sunday, “There must be a truly independent investigation to thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor, and I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary.”
Following these entreaties, Cuomo announced that Jones would not be investigating him. Instead, a aide to the governor told the New York Times he has requested that James and Janet DiFiore, who serves as chief judge of the state of New York, “jointly select an independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation to conduct a thorough review of the matter and issue a public report.”
While public pressure led the governor to change course on the investigation, he has not shown signs of willingness to accommodate other critics: Some Republicans in the state, like Trump ally Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) are calling for Cuomo’s immediate resignation.
My Statement on New York Times Story on Governor Cuomo’s Sexual Harassment Victim pic.twitter.com/E8JhktPZpL— Elise Stefanik (@EliseStefanik) February 28, 2021
The allegations continue a month of Cuomo scandals
Cuomo is already under fire for reportedly undercounting Covid-19-related nursing home deaths in official statistics — and later covering it up. And one New York lawmaker says Cuomo called him to threaten retribution if he did not go along with the attempted cover-up. The sexual harassment allegations put Cuomo on even thinner political ice.
When first confronted with accusations that the state was undercounting nursing home deaths, the governor explained that the state did not count nursing home patients who died in a hospital in the official statistics, to avoid “double counting.” But an aide reportedly told state lawmakers the real reason was to avoid giving former President Donald Trump fodder to attack Cuomo and other Democrats with. Curiously, New York was alone among US states to count nursing home deaths in this way.
“It’s tricky to compare state-level data, but New York is the only state that explicitly stated that they were excluding hospital-based deaths,” Priya Chidambaram, a senior policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit research organization, told NBC News in mid-February.
As a result of this approach, there was a deep undercount in official statistics of nursing home deaths. The state had previously claimed that 8,500 nursing home patients had died of Covid-19; however, after accounting for hospital deaths, that number nearly doubled to 15,000. That would put New York as the state with the most nursing home Covid-19 deaths in the country.
Cuomo has attempted to deflect criticism over the scandal. While admitting that his administration’s handling of Covid-19 data created a void that was “filled with skepticism, and cynicism, and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion,” he also claimed that he was only attempting to follow the federal nursing home guidelines at the time.
But that explanation fell flat with some of the state’s Democrats, like New York City mayor and Cuomo critic Bill de Blasio. “I have not spoken to [Cuomo]. I do not accept his explanation,” de Blasio said during a press conference in mid-February. “There needs to be a full investigation ... we need to get the whole truth and make sure nothing like this ever happens ever again.”
That call has been answered, and a federal investigation has now been launched into the matter.