By MATT ZARRELL, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has formally referred the case into allegations of sexual harassment against the governor to New York Attorney General Letitia James, the governor’s office announced Sunday night.
This decision enables an investigation with subpoena power for the attorney general’s office.
“The Governor’s office wants a thorough and independent review that is above reproach and beyond political interference. Therefore, the Governor’s office has asked Attorney General Tish James to select a qualified private lawyer to do an independent review of allegations of sexual harassment,” Beth Garvey, special counsel and senior advisor to the governor, said in a statement Sunday night. “The lawyer shall report publicly their findings. The Governor’s office will voluntarily cooperate fully.”
James earlier Sunday rejected a proposal from Cuomo to select an independent investigator to conduct a review, she said on Sunday afternoon.
After two former aides came forward this week with accusations against Cuomo, Garvey at first announced that an independent review would be launched, led by former federal Judge Barbara Jones.
But after critics argued Jones was inadequate given her business ties to Cuomo’s top aide, Steve Cohen, the governor’s office released a statement on Sunday morning that James and the chief judge of the court of appeals, Janet DiFiore, would jointly select an “independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation to conduct a thorough review and issue a public report.”
“We had selected former Federal Judge Barbara Jones, with a stellar record for qualifications and integrity, but we want to avoid even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics,” the statement said. “The work product will be solely controlled by that independent lawyer personally selected by the Attorney General and Chief Judge.”
Later on Sunday, James rejected the governor’s call for the appointment of an outside lawyer and repeated her request for a formal referral from the governor’s office so she can lead an investigation with subpoena power.
“To clarify, I do not accept the governor’s proposal. 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,” James said in a statement. “The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted.”
“I urge the governor to make this referral immediately,” James said.
State and U.S. senators, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others are calling for a completely independent investigation. Some, including state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, have called for Cuomo’s resignation.
Allegations made against Cuomo
Two former aides to Cuomo made allegations of sexual harassment against the governor this week.
On Wednesday, Lindsey Boylan made claims of “sexual harassment and bullying” against the governor, saying it lasted “for years.”
In a post on Medium, Boylan described one incident aboard a flight with Cuomo, aides and a New York state trooper in October 2017 where Cuomo suggested they play “strip poker.” She also complained to friends that Cuomo “would go out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs.”
Boylan, who began working in the state office in 2015 and was later promoted to deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, accused Cuomo of creating “a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive, that it is not only condoned but expected.”
Months before her Medium post, Boylan, saying she was compelled to go public after seeing Cuomo’s name floated as a potential U.S. attorney general candidate, began tweeting allegations against Cuomo on Dec. 13.
“Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched. I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks. Or would it be both in the same conversation? This was the way for years,” she tweeted.
Boylan, who is currently running for Manhattan borough president, resigned from the governor’s office in September 2018.
After Boylan’s Medium post, Cuomo’s office issued a statement denying her allegations against the governor.
“As we said before, Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false,” according to a statement from press secretary Caitlin Girouard.
The statement also denied Boylan’s allegations of what happened on the October 2017 flight.
Calls for an independent investigation and for the governor to resign have increased after a second accuser came forward with allegations against Cuomo on Saturday.
Charlotte Bennett, another former aide to Cuomo, told The New York Times that the governor harassed her last spring, including one incident on June 5, 2020, where Cuomo allegedly asked her questions about her personal life, romantic interests and stated that he was “open to relationships with women in their 20s,” the Times reported.
Bennett left Cuomo’s administration in November, she told the Times.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett told the Times, adding that she told Cuomo’s chief of staff, Jill DesRosiers, a week after the June 5 incident and was transferred from the role of executive assistant to a health policy adviser.
Cuomo has denied the allegations but said in a statement Sunday night that some of the things he has said “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
“At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way,” Cuomo’s statement said. “I do it in public and in private. You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt 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’s statement said.
Cuomo released a statement after the Times story was published, calling Bennett a “hardworking and valued member of our team during COVID” but denied making any advances towards Bennett.
Cuomo said he never intended to act in any way that was inappropriate and was trying to be a supportive and helpful mentor.
“The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported,” he said.
“This situation cannot and should not be resolved in the press; 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. I ask all New Yorkers to await the findings of the review so that they know the facts before making any judgments. I will have no further comment until the review has concluded,” he said.
Cuomo also under fire for nursing home deaths
Cuomo is also being investigated by the FBI and federal prosecutors, who are looking at the governor’s coronavirus task force, with a particular focus on his administration’s handling of nursing homes early in the coronavirus pandemic, two sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.
The investigation, first reported by the Albany Times Union, is in its initial stages. Subpoenas have been issued, the sources said.
The FBI has declined to comment, as did the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.
The full scope of the investigation is not immediately clear, but the sources said there was a particular interest in nursing homes, which have been a source of increasing frustration for Cuomo.
The number of New York nursing home residents who died from the virus may have been undercounted by as much as 50%, according to an investigation conducted by the New York attorney general’s office, which said that many of those patients died after being moved to the hospital and were thus not counted as nursing home deaths.
Investigators asked 62 nursing homes for information about on-site and in-hospital deaths from COVID-19 beginning the week of March 1, 2020, and found significant discrepancies between those figures and the numbers reported to the Department of Health. In one instance, according to the report, a facility reported to the DOH that on-site fatalities totaled five confirmed COVID-19 deaths and six presumed COVID-19 deaths, but told the AG’s office there were actually 27 deaths at the facility and 13 hospital deaths — a discrepancy of 29 deaths.
Earlier this month, a Cuomo aide conceded the administration withheld the nursing home death toll from state lawmakers out of fear it would be used against the state by the Trump administration.
“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, said of Trump on the conference call recording, a transcript of which was provided by DeRosa to ABC News. “He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer. He directs the Department of Justice to do an investigation into us.”
Cuomo conceded his handling of nursing home fatality data created a “void” that became filled by misinformation and conspiracy theories — but he declined to apologize.
“The void we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories which fueled the confusion,” Cuomo said during a news conference Monday. “The void we created disinformation and that caused more anxiety for loved ones.”
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