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New York governor faces new allegations that threaten his political future

In the depths of the early Covid-19 crisis last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo soared to national prominence as he became a daily fixture on television — providing a calm, steady recitation of the facts that endeared him to many Americans who were terrified of the deadly new virus ravaging their cities and overwhelming their hospitals.

Now a year later, the Democratic governor is engulfed in multiple controversies that have threatened his political survival and raised serious questions about his judgment at a time when he might otherwise have been on a glide path to a fourth term in the 2022 election.

Just a few years after the #MeToo movement put a glaring spotlight on the entrenched pattern of sexual misconduct by men in powerful positions, Cuomo is facing sexual harassment allegations from two female former aides who described an unsettling power dynamic in his office that they say they are determined to call attention to.

Cuomo’s office at first said it had requested an “independent review” into the matter and had tapped a former federal judge to lead the effort. But after criticism from Democratic lawmakers about that approach and an extended back-and-forth over how the probe should be conducted, Cuomo’s office said Sunday it was referring the matter to the New York attorney general, who has indicated she will appoint an independent investigator.

In a statement Sunday evening — nearly 24 hours after the second sexual harassment allegation broke — Cuomo said that he now realizes that what he perceived as “playful” banter in the office could have been have been “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”

The sexual harassment allegations come as Cuomo’s administration is embroiled in a controversy over the state Department of Health’s alleged underreporting of Covid-19 nursing home deaths and the administration’s delay in providing data about those deaths to state lawmakers. The FBI and the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn are examining the handling of the data. Some state lawmakers have accused Cuomo of a cover up and have said they are considering repealing the governor’s emergency powers. Lawmakers are also asking whether more deaths in New York’s long-term care facilities could have been prevented.

Disturbing allegations

The new sexual harassment allegation emerged Saturday evening in an article in the New York Times. Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former executive assistant and health policy adviser to Cuomo, told the newspaper that during one of several uncomfortable encounters, Cuomo asked her questions about her sex life during a conversation in his State Capitol office and said he was open to relationships with women in their 20s.

She interpreted the exchange — which she said took place in June while the state was in the throes of fighting the pandemic — as what the newspaper called “clear overtures to a sexual relationship.” CNN has reached out to Bennett for comment on the latest accusation.

Cuomo denied Bennett’s allegations Saturday in a statement, saying he believed he had been acting as a mentor and that he “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,” Cuomo said, saying that “she came to me and opened up about being a sexual assault survivor” and that “I tried to be supportive and helpful.”

In his statement Cuomo noted he had requested an “outside review” of the matter and asked that New Yorkers await the findings “before making any judgments.” He called Bennett “a hardworking and valued member of our team during COVID” and said “she has every right to speak out.”

His office at first said the inquiry would be conducted by former Federal Judge Barbara Jones.

But several high profile New York Democrats including Reps. Jerry Nadler and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — a longtime adversary of Cuomo — rejected that approach, stating that Cuomo should refer the matter to the state attorney general, who could appoint an independent investigator.

Cuomo’s office then altered its approach to the probe several times on Sunday. Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, the governor’s office said they would refer the matter to New York Attorney General Letitia James, but at first suggested she should work with the chief judge of the Court of Appeals to choose an independent lawyer to conduct the investigation. James rejected that idea and said it was her sole duty to oversee it. By Sunday evening, Cuomo’s office had acquiesced. Beth Garvey, special counsel and senior adviser to the governor, called on James to choose “a qualified private lawyer to do an independent review of allegations of sexual harassment.”

In the new account to the New York Times about the second sexual harassment allegation — which triggered a flood of calls from prominent Democrats for investigation into Cuomo’s conduct — Bennett told the newspaper that she felt compelled to speak out about her experience because she wanted to draw scrutiny to the way Cuomo “wields his power.”

Bennett told the Times that Cuomo did not make a physical advance on her, but the message was clear. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” she told the newspaper. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Bennett agreed to speak to the New York Times last week after she shared a tweet from the account of another former Cuomo aide, Lindsey Boylan, who wrote a detailed post on Medium about her own allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo, which his aides have said are untrue.

When tweeting Boylan’s account, Bennett urged people to read it if they want to know “what it’s like to work for the Cuomo (administration).”

Boylan alleged in the Medium post that Cuomo invited her to “play strip poker” during a 2017 flight on his taxpayer-funded jet while another aide was seated beside her and a state trooper behind her. In 2018, Boylan said, Cuomo stunned her by kissing her on the lips after a one-on-one briefing on economic and infrastructure projects in his New York City office.

Cuomo denied Boylan’s allegations in a December news conference when she first made them.

In a statement released by the governor’s press secretary on Wednesday, four other people said they were on October flights with her and that “this conversation did not happen.”

CNN has not been able to corroborate the allegations, and when asked for further comment, Boylan — who is currently running for Manhattan borough president — replied that she was letting her Medium post speak for itself. She wrote in the post that she hoped sharing her story “will clear the path for other women to do the same.”

“Governor Andrew Cuomo has created a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected,” Boylan wrote. “His inappropriate behavior toward women was an affirmation that he liked you, that you must be doing something right. He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences.”

Boylan tweeted Sunday morning that Cuomo should resign. “And if he does not resign, he should be removed from office. Not one more victim. Not one more life destroyed,” she wrote.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, released a statement last week calling the Boylan accusation “disturbing.”

“This is deeply disturbing. Clearly there is no place for this type of behavior in the workplace or anywhere else,” Stewart-Cousins wrote.

Cuomo sought to explain his interactions with female colleagues in an additional statement released Sunday evening, where he said he is often “playful” in his conversations at work and has teased people about their personal lives or their relationships. He said he never meant to offend anyone or cause harm, and that he has simply tried to “add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.”

“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,” Cuomo said in the statement Sunday night. “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.”

He added that he “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.”

The seriousness of the allegations led many Democratic lawmakers, as well as the White House, to weigh in on Sunday. De Blasio — a frequent Cuomo sparring partner — called Sunday for the state legislature to revoke the governor’s emergency powers and said that “two fully independent investigations must be held immediately into the deaths at nursing homes and the disturbing personal misconduct allegations.”

Asked about the new allegations against Cuomo on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden “believes that every woman should be heard, should be treated with respect and with dignity.”

“Charlotte should be treated with respect and dignity. So should Lindsey. And there should be an independent review looking into these allegations and that’s certainly something he supports and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible,” Psaki told CNN’s Dana Bash, calling the allegations “serious” and adding that “it was hard to read that story as a woman.”

An already perilous position

Now facing two sets of allegations against him that detail not only inappropriate conduct but an office culture where women say they were afraid to speak up, Cuomo will have to explain the environment that he has created over his three terms as governor. And the allegations come at a difficult time for Cuomo when some of his political adversaries are more loudly questioning his political tactics as his administration is criticized for its handling of Covid-19 data.

His administration is still reeling from the fallout from a report released in January by James, the state attorney general, that revealed that the New York State Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among residents of nursing homes by approximately 50%. The governor has faced fierce criticism both for his explanation of what happened and his actions as he tried to mitigate the damage of the data reporting scandal.

More than 15,000 residents of New York’s long-term care facilities have died (or are presumed to have died) from Covid-19 since the pandemic began, according to the state Department of Health. But until January, the department only reported the deaths of long-term care residents who died in a facility like a nursing home, not those who passed away after being transferred to hospitals.

Ocasio-Cortez, one of the state’s high-profile lawmakers in Washington, DC, has come out in favor of “a full investigation of the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes during COVID-19.”

The confusion about the nursing home numbers led many New York lawmakers to drill the Cuomo administration for clearer answers about that data throughout last year. Earlier this month, after James’ report, Cuomo’s top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted in a virtual meeting with state lawmakers that the administration tried to delay the release of the data on Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, because they were wary of a federal Justice Department preliminary inquiry.

During a subsequent news conference, Cuomo acknowledged that his administration did not respond “soon enough” to requests for the data on Covid-19 deaths that was being requested by lawmakers, but he said the state’s death counts were accurate.

“To be clear, all the deaths in the nursing homes and in the hospitals were always fully, publicly and accurately reported,” he said.

Like DeRosa, Cuomo tried to explain his administration’s delay in releasing data on Covid-19 deaths to lawmakers by stating that the Department of Health “paused” state lawmakers’ request for Covid-19 death data while his administration was focused on the related inquiry by the Justice Department. In a narrowly worded apology, he said the delay in providing the information to lawmakers created “a void” that allowed conspiracy theories to flourish.

“The void we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion,” Cuomo said. “We should have done a better job in providing information. We should have done a better job of knocking down the disinformation. … I accept responsibility for that.”

But that apology did not go far enough for many of the lawmakers who are delving more deeply into whether more could have been done to prevent the state’s more than 47,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

In another notable allegation about the power dynamics that Cuomo has created, one lawmaker accused the governor of trying to control the fallout over the misleading data reporting about nursing home deaths by threatening his career.

Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, a progressive from Queens who is an outspoken critic of Cuomo, alleged that during a phone call with the governor earlier this month, Cuomo threatened his career if he “did not cover up for Melissa (DeRosa) and what she said.”

Recounting the conversation, Kim told CNN that Cuomo said: “We’re in this business together and we don’t cross certain lines” and added that “I hadn’t seen his wrath and that he can destroy me.”

Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser, said the allegation that Cuomo threatened to “destroy” Kim was a lie.

Cuomo’s standing with a majority of New Yorkers remained high in a Siena College Research Institute survey released earlier this month but conducted before the details of DeRosa’s call were made public. More than 60% of voters approved of his handling of the pandemic although a majority gave him “fair” or “poor” marks on making public all data about Covid-related deaths of nursing home patients.

The questions about the Cuomo administration’s handling of the data are not fading, as yet another contentious hearing with New York state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker showed last week.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, the Democratic chair of the health committee, expressed frustration during the hearing with an administration that he said “will apparently never acknowledge that you have done anything wrong.”

At the height of his popularity last spring, Cuomo was praised for his clarity and his candor about the depths of the crisis that his state was facing. That clarity has been missing in his administration’s explanations of the handling of Covid-19 data, which have been confusing and difficult to follow. He now also faces serious allegations that he created a toxic work culture and acted in a way that indelibly changed the career trajectory of two young women in his employ.

Whether he has a political future won’t be clear until he explains how that happened and offers his constituents a candid assessment of his own conduct — which will determine whether he can regain their trust.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN

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