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Cuomo Investigation: Governor Attacked Over His ‘Independent Review’ of Sex Harassment Claims

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday retreated from his plan to have a former federal judge who has close ties to one of the governor’s closest allies investigate sexual harassment claims against him.

Mr. Cuomo said that he would ask Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, and Janet DiFiore, the chief judge on New York State’s highest court, to jointly pick someone to investigate sexual harassment accusations lodged by two women who worked in the Cuomo administration.

The move came amid mounting criticism over Mr. Cuomo’s initial choice of Barbara S. Jones, a former federal judge who worked with Mr. Cuomo’s longtime adviser, Steven M. Cohen, after leaving the bench.

Many of Mr. Cuomo’s fellow Democrats had questioned whether Ms. Jones could truly be impartial, while public officials from both sides of the aisle called the allegations against the governor both unsavory and potentially career-ending, with some calling for his resignation.

The political fallout followed a New York Times article that detailed the accusations of Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide to the governor.

In a series of interviews this week, Ms. Bennett said Mr. Cuomo had asked her about her sex life, including whether she practiced monogamy and had any interest in older men.

Ms. Bennett said Mr. Cuomo, 63, 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 later realized he had been grooming her. It was the second such allegation against the governor in a week.

Mr. Cuomo said that he believed he had been acting as a mentor and had “never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate.”

“This situation cannot and should not be resolved in the press,” he said in a statement issued on Saturday. “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.”

The governor’s move on Sunday seemed designed to counter the torrent of criticism over the selection of Ms. Jones. But it, too, was met with blowback, most notably from Ms. James.

She rejected the governor’s proposal, publicly demanding that Mr. Cuomo give her what’s known as a “referral,” so that she could vest an investigator with subpoena power and begin an inquiry.

“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, per executive law,” she said in a statement released on Sunday.

A spokesman for the governor did not immediately say if the governor would comply with Ms. James’s request.

Still, by putting Ms. James and Judge DiFiore in charge of choosing who might oversee an investigation, Mr. Cuomo is placing the matter in the hands of officials he has trusted in the past.

Mr. Cuomo appointed Judge DiFiore to her position; Ms. James was the governor’s preferred candidate after Eric T. Schneiderman suddenly resigned as attorney general in 2018 amid scrutiny of his treatment of women, and she readily embraced Mr. Cuomo’s political backing.

Any criticism, however, will seem muted compared with the reaction that followed the initial choice of Ms. Jones. Many elected officials — including the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly — seemed skeptical of Ms. Jones’s ability to act with total independence while under Mr. Cuomo’s purview.

“I believe the Attorney General should make an appointment to ensure that it is a truly independent investigation,” Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, wrote on Twitter, referring to the state attorney general, Letitia James.

“There must be an independent investigation — not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Queens congresswoman, wrote on Twitter Sunday morning.

“With all due respect, you can’t pick a federal judge who works with your good friend and decide that that’s going to be the investigator,” said Liz Krueger, a Democratic state senator from Manhattan.

Kathleen Rice, a Long Island congresswoman and a former Nassau County district attorney, put it even more bluntly.

“The accused CANNOT appoint the investigator,” Ms. Rice, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter. “PERIOD.”

A handful of lawmakers from the Democratic Party’s leftmost flank joined with some Republicans to demand that Mr. Cuomo immediately resign.

“The harassment experienced by these former staffers is part of a clear pattern of abuse and manipulation by the governor, and that pattern makes him unworthy of holding the highest office in New York,” State Senator Alessandra Biaggi wrote in a statement posted on Twitter.

Even Jen Psaki, the press secretary for President Biden, a longtime ally of Mr. Cuomo’s, was obliged to weigh in.

During an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Ms. Psaki said the president endorses an “independent” investigation into the allegations against Mr. Cuomo and described those allegations as “serious.”

“It was hard to read that story, as a woman,” Ms. Psaki said.

The news caps a turbulent weekend that represents perhaps the worst month of Mr. Cuomo’s decade-long tenure as governor of New York and pointed to a sharp turnabout in his fortunes.

Last week, 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, 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 sexual harassment and 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.”

Less than a year after Mr. Cuomo’s pandemic-era news briefings prompted discussion about his presidential ambitions and caused #cuomosexual to trend on Twitter, Democrats openly wondered whether the governor could survive this latest crisis, which comes on the heels of several others.

Ms. James in late January reported that Mr. Cuomo’s administration had significantly undercounted nursing home deaths in New York State.

A New York Times report found that Mr. Cuomo had all but declared war on his own Health Department over coronavirus policies, apparently prompting the departure of at least nine high-level executives. Then his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, was recorded acknowledging that the state had withheld nursing home fatality data from the State Legislature because it feared a politically motivated investigation by the Trump administration’s Justice Department. Her admission prompted allegations of a cover-up and demands for Mr. Cuomo’s impeachment.

Federal prosecutors have opened an inquiry into Mr. Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes; legislators rallied to strip Mr. Cuomo of his unilateral emergency powers, which they granted him at the start of the pandemic; and possible competitors began to more seriously consider challenging him in next year’s elections.

“Lying about nursing home deaths and lying about the treatment of a young woman and a married woman who work for him is bad, very bad,” said Karen Hinton, who worked as Mr. Cuomo’s press secretary when he ran the federal housing department.

Jesse McKinley and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.


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