NEW YORK — A former aide accusing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment condemned him Monday as a manipulative predator, rejecting an attempted apology in which he excused his behavior as “playful.”
Charlotte Bennett, who alleges Cuomo quizzed her about her sex life and asked whether she would be open to a relationship with an older man, said in a statement that the governor has “refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior.”
“As we know, abusers — particularly those with tremendous amounts of power — are often repeat offenders who engage in manipulative tactics to diminish allegations, blame victims, deny wrongdoing and escape consequences,” wrote Bennett.
“It took (Cuomo) 24 hours and significant backlash to allow for a truly independent investigation,” she added. “These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice.”
Bennett’s statement came as New York’s independently elected attorney general said she was moving ahead with an investigation into sexual harassment allegations that Bennett and another woman, former aide Lindsey Boylan, have lodged against Cuomo.
Attorney General Letitia James received a letter Monday from Cuomo’s office authorizing her to take charge of the probe after a weekend of wrangling over who should investigate.
The letter enables James, also a Democrat, to deputize an outside law firm to conduct an inquiry with full subpoena power. The findings will be disclosed in a public report, the letter said.
“This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously,” James said in a statement.
Cuomo has maintained he had never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone.
Ross Garber, a lawyer who has represented former governors Mark Sanford of South Carolina and John Rowland of Connecticut, said Cuomo is “essentially handing his reputation to an outsider and saying, ‘Have at it. Go find whatever you want and publish a report to the public about whatever it is you’ve concluded that I’ve done or not done.”
Cuomo’s support has plummeted amid dual crises, even among fellow Democrats. The harassment allegations come on the heels of accusations he covered up the true death toll of coronavirus on nursing home residents.
It’s quite a tumble for Cuomo, who had been widely celebrated for his leadership during the pandemic, particularly the daily news conferences where he sought to inform and reassure the public with charts, graphs and a machismo he dubbed “New York tough.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials have said that while Cuomo is under investigation, he should cede emergency powers he’s held since the pandemic began, nearly a year ago. The Legislature hasn’t taken any steps to revoke Cuomo’s emergency powers — set to expire April 30 — despite a push from Republicans, some Democrats, as well as the SUNY faculty union.
On Monday, Cuomo retained Manhattan litigator Elkan Abramowitz to represent him and his office in probes related to nursing homes.
Abramowitz, who previously represented Cuomo’s office in a federal investigation into his 2014 decision to shutdown a state anti-corruption commission, said he is not representing Cuomo in the sexual harassment matter.
Bennett, 25, came forward with her allegations in a story published Saturday in The New York Times. She said that Cuomo told her he was lonely and looking for a girlfriend.
Cuomo did not respond to Bennett’s statement Monday.
Boylan said Cuomo made inappropriate comments about her appearance, kissed her without her consent at the end of a meeting and once suggested they play strip poker while aboard his state-owned jet. Boylan, who is running for Manhattan borough president, first accused Cuomo in a tweet last December and elaborated on the allegations in a Medium post last week.
Cuomo has denied Boylan’s allegations as untrue. In a statement Sunday, he acknowledged that he had teased people about their personal lives in an attempt to be “playful” and funny. He said he had wanted to act like a mentor to Bennett.
“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,” he said.
His statement drew immediate backlash from critics who said he was throwing responsibility onto the women for perceiving his statements wrongly.
The letter authorizing James’ investigation said that all state employees have been directed to cooperate fully with the review. Cuomo senior adviser Beth Garvey said she would facilitate interviews with witnesses and requests for documents from Cuomo’s office.
Bennett’s lawyer, Debra Katz, said her client will cooperate fully with the attorney general’s investigation.
“We are confident that no disinterested investigator who reviews this evidence would adopt the Governor’s self-serving characterization of his behavior as mentorship or, at worst, unwanted flirtation,” Katz said. “He was not acting as a mentor and his remarks were not misunderstood by Ms. Bennett. He was abusing his power over her for sex. This is textbook sexual harassment.”
Katz said the attorney general must investigate whether Cuomo subjected other women to a sexually hostile work environment, and whether anyone in the Cuomo administration enabled his behavior.
Initially, Cuomo appeared wanting to retain a level of control over the investigation. His office said it was asking a former federal judge, Barbara Jones, to conduct the probe. Then, his office suggested that the attorney general and the state’s top judge work together to appoint outside counsel.
Finally, on Sunday, Cuomo acquiesced to James’ demands that she take control.
Story by Michael R. Sisak and Marina Villeneuve, The Associated Press. Villeneuve reported from Albany, New York. Associated Press reporter Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.