ALBANY, New York: Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged for the first time on Sunday (Feb 28) that some of his behaviour with women had been “misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation”, and said he would cooperate with a sexual harassment investigation led by the state's attorney general.
In a statement released amid mounting criticism from within his own party, the Democrat maintained he had never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone. But he said he had teased people and made jokes about their personal lives in an attempt to be “playful".
“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.
He made the comments after the state’s attorney general demanded Cuomo grant her the authority to investigate claims he sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him.
Cuomo's legal counsel said the governor would back a plan to appoint an outside lawyer as a special independent deputy attorney general.
Top Democrats statewide appeared to be abandoning Cuomo in large numbers as he tried to retain some say over who would investigate his workplace conduct.
Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat who has been, at times, allied with Cuomo but is independently elected, appeared to emerge as a consensus choice to lead a probe.
Over several hours on Sunday, she and other leading party officials rejected two proposals by the governor that they said could potentially have limited the independence of the investigation.
Under his first plan, announced on Saturday evening, a retired federal judge picked by Cuomo, Barbara Jones, would have reviewed his workplace behaviour. In the second proposal, announced on Sunday morning in an attempt to appease legislative leaders, Cuomo asked James and the state’s chief appeals court judge, Janet DiFiore, to jointly appoint a lawyer to investigate the claims and issue a public report.
James said neither plan went far enough.
“I do not accept the governor’s proposal,” she said. “The state’s Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral. 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. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted.”
Many of the biggest names in New York politics lined up quickly behind James.
The state legislature's two top leaders, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both said they wanted her to handle the investigation.
New York's two US senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both said an independent investigation was essential.
“These allegations are serious and deeply concerning. As requested by Attorney General James, the matter should be referred to her office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power," Gillibrand said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “There should be an independent review looking into these allegations." She said that's something President Joe Biden supports “and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible".
The calls for an investigation into Cuomo's workplace behaviour intensified after a second former employee of his administration went public on Saturday with claims she had been harassed.
Charlotte Bennett, a low-level aide in the governor’s administration until November, told The New York Times Cuomo asked inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men, and made other comments she interpreted as gauging her interest in an affair.
Her accusation came days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, elaborated on harassment allegations she first made in December. Boylan said Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and inappropriate comments about her appearance.
Cuomo, 63, said in a statement on Saturday he had intended to be a mentor for Bennett, who is 25. He has denied Boylan's allegations.
The furor over the sexual harassment allegations comes amid a new round of criticism over his leadership style and actions his administration took to protect his reputation as an early leader in the nation's coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo had won praise as a strong hand at the helm during last spring’s crisis of rising case counts and overflowing morgues. His book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published in October.
READ: Cuomo acknowledges withholding New York nursing home COVID-19 death toll from lawmakers, public
But in recent weeks his administration was forced to revise its count of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes following criticism that it had undercounted the fatalities to blunt accusations that some of his administration's policies had made the situation in the homes worse.
James fueled some of that criticism by issuing a report that raised questions about whether the Cuomo administration had undercounted deaths.
Cuomo was also criticised after a state Assembly member went public with a story of being politically threatened by Cuomo over comments he made to a newspaper about the governor's coronavirus leadership. Cuomo said his comments were being mischaracterised.
Now, his support is eroding faster.
“Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett’s detailed accounts of sexual harassment by Gov. Cuomo are extremely serious and painful to read,” US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter Sunday. “There must be an independent investigation — not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General.”
A group of more than a dozen Democratic women in the state Assembly said in a statement: “The Governor’s proposal to appoint someone who is not independently elected, has no subpoena authority, and no prosecutorial authority is inadequate.”