The accumulating of evidence began more than two months ago, as investigators at the Albany County Sheriff’s Office scrutinized cellphone and flight records, testimony and hundreds of pages of documents.
The investigation, into allegations lodged against then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo by a woman on his staff who accused him of groping her breast at the Executive Mansion, was supposed to culminate this week, the sheriff, Craig Apple, said.
A criminal complaint charging Mr. Cuomo with a misdemeanor sex crime was filed by one of Sheriff Apple’s investigators in Albany City Court on Thursday. The court typically takes several days to process such paperwork, Sheriff Apple said, and he planned to use that time to alert local prosecutors, and Mr. Cuomo’s lawyers, about the complaint.
What transpired instead caught the sheriff flat-footed, and plunged what was already an explosive investigation involving the once-powerful governor into unexpected chaos, raising questions about whether officials had mishandled the complaint and about the viability of a case that was already going to be difficult for prosecutors.
The court approved the sheriff’s complaint within minutes and issued a summons for Mr. Cuomo’s arraignment, Sheriff Apple said. The news was almost immediately reported in the media, sending shock waves across Albany, the state capital.
“We kind of got sandbagged ourselves and I kind of felt bad about the way that it all happened,” the sheriff said at a news conference on Friday. “But the way that it went down has nothing to do with the case. The case is a very solid case.”
He acknowledged that his office had not coordinated with the county’s district attorney before filing the criminal complaint, an unusual tactic in such a high-stakes and sensitive criminal matter, where prosecutors and the police usually work in tandem.
It was still unclear on Friday whether the district attorney, David Soares, whose office said it had learned of the complaint from news reports on Thursday, was going to prosecute the charges against Mr. Cuomo.
What did become clearer was the haphazard nature by which the misdemeanor charge was suddenly made public on Thursday, without the knowledge of the female aide, Brittany Commisso; Mr. Cuomo and his lawyer; and even the sheriff.
The sheriff did not divulge many details about his office’s investigation, but he said it was based on interviews, search warrants and a review of “hundreds if not thousands of documents.”
The inquiry, Sheriff Apple said, was independent of one being conducted by Mr. Soares’s investigators, adding that he had received help from the state attorney general’s office and outside lawyers hired by the State Assembly. Both entities have investigated the sexual harassment claims leveled against Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who left office before the end of his third term.
The evidence from the sheriff’s office has not been made public, but the complaint said the materials included a text message from Mr. Cuomo’s cellphone, messages from the BlackBerry devices of State Police troopers and swipe-card entry records from the State Capitol.
The evidence, the sheriff said, is meant to substantiate Ms. Commisso’s account: that Mr. Cuomo groped her in the governor’s residence in December, as opposed to November, as the attorney general’s report originally suggested.
The date of the alleged incident has been the source of intense dispute. Ms. Commisso originally told investigators she could not recall the exact date, but the sheriff’s office has determined it occurred on Dec. 7, apparently based on new evidence it unearthed.
Mr. Cuomo’s lawyer, Rita Glavin, has cited the discrepancy in her repeated efforts to cast doubt on Ms. Commisso’s claim, which Ms. Glavin has described as an “evolving version of events.” Mr. Cuomo has repeatedly denied touching Ms. Commisso inappropriately.
Mr. Cuomo was charged with forcible touching, which carries a penalty of up to one year in jail. Mr. Cuomo, who was facing multiple sexual harassment allegations when he resigned in August, is scheduled to be arraigned in Albany court on Nov. 17.
But the looming arraignment was overshadowed on Friday by questions about how the criminal complaint had been handled, with some reports suggesting it was filed erroneously or prematurely. The confusion helped fuel speculation that the sheriff’s decision may have been influenced by politics, insinuations that were amplified by Mr. Cuomo and his allies as they sought to counter the charge.
On Friday, Sheriff Apple, a Democrat who was elected to his position in 2011, defended his office’s work, saying the complaint stemmed from a monthslong investigation into Ms. Commisso’s complaint after she made the assault allegation in August.
The sheriff insisted that it was typical for his office to proceed with a misdemeanor charge without conferring with the district attorney’s office.
He also said that the court usually took some time to review the paperwork before issuing a summons or a warrant for an arrest, but that in this instance, the court issued a criminal summons for Mr. Cuomo’s arraignment within minutes.
As a result, Sheriff Apple said, he did not have enough time to inform prosecutors and Mr. Cuomo’s personal lawyer about the complaint before it became public.
“This just came back at a relatively accelerated rate and kind of caught us by surprise as well,” Sheriff Apple said, adding that, “sometimes in police work, with investigations, things don’t go how you want them.”
Mr. Soares must now decide whether to proceed with what will almost certainly be a tough case to prove, made even more difficult by the parallel investigations. Sheriff Apple on Friday appeared to defer to Mr. Soares, saying, “I feel very confident that the district attorney is going to prosecute this.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Soares, who is also a Democrat, said the district attorney’s office recognized that the case involving Mr. Cuomo was “a matter of great public interest,” but she would not confirm whether the office planned to prosecute the former governor.
“At this time we are refraining from making any additional comments or engaging in interviews about the court filings made by the Albany County sheriff’s office,” the spokeswoman, Cecilia Walsh, said in an emailed statement.
Lawyers and academics said the sheriff’s decision to proceed with a charge without the district attorney’s input was well outside the norm in a case of this type. Law enforcement agents routinely file criminal complaints after making arrests. But typically, in long-term investigations — particularly those of heightened public interest — law enforcement authorities would work closely with local prosecutors since they would handle the case if a legal proceeding were initiated.
E. Stewart Jones Jr., a criminal defense lawyer in Troy, N.Y., said in an interview that the apparent lack of coordination between Sheriff Apple and Mr. Soares was highly unusual.
“An awful lot depends upon what actually went down between the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office,” Mr. Jones said.
Brian Premo, the lawyer for Ms. Commisso, suggested strongly that while his client had been “surprised” by the complaint, she was willing to cooperate as a witness if the case did proceed.
“It was my client’s understanding that the district attorney’s office was going to basically lead a thorough and apolitical investigation into the matter and then discuss all the issues with my client, and then my client would give her informed consent,” Mr. Premo told WGDJ-AM, an Albany radio station.
“It was our understanding that the sheriff was in agreement with that process, so she was just surprised by how it came about and what had occurred,” he added.
He added, however, that Ms. Commisso “has been and always will be a cooperative victim, and she just wants justice.”
Ms. Commisso’s allegation was among the most serious detailed in the Aug. 3 report released by the state attorney general, Letitia James, after a five-month long investigation led by a team of outside lawyers.
Ms. Commisso has said Mr. Cuomo had reached under her blouse and grabbed her left breast while they were alone on the Executive Mansion’s second floor late last year. Mr. Cuomo and his allies have characterized the investigation overseen by Ms. James’s office as politically motivated and meant to advance her political ambitions.
On Friday, hours after Ms. James officially declared her candidacy for governor, Ms. Glavin, Mr. Cuomo’s lawyer, described the timing of the sheriff’s complaint and Ms. James’s announcement as “highly suspect,” saying it “should give all of us pause that the heavy hand of politics is behind this decision.”
“We expect clearheaded people will make better decisions going forward,” Ms. Glavin said in a statement. “But should this case move forward we are prepared to vigorously defend the governor and challenge every aspect of the specious, inconsistent and uncorroborated allegations made against him.”
Sheriff Apple called the accusations by the governor’s team “ridiculous,” adding that he had not discussed the filing of his complaint with anybody but members of his staff.
“I’ve been accused on Twitter all night about this being a political hit job,” he said. “Why? How is the Albany County sheriff doing a political hit job? That is ridiculous. We are an apolitical organization.”