Faced with an escalating backlash following two allegations of sexual harassment in less than a week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday acknowledged that some of his comments in the workplace “may have been insensitive or too personal” and said he was “truly sorry” to those who might have “misinterpreted (the remarks) as an unwanted flirtation.”
But Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, also maintained that he never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone, denying the allegation of a former aide that he had kissed her on the lips after a one-on-one briefing.
The governor’s statement capped a whirlwind 24 hours that began with a new accusation on Saturday of sexual harassment and growing calls from prominent New York Democrats for an independent investigation into the allegations. His efforts to guide that process also unraveled after the state attorney general, Letitia James, rejected Cuomo’s proposal that she and the New York’s chief judge jointly select an independent attorney to conduct “a thorough and independent review” of the claims against him. Instead, James insisted that the process be free from any perception of interference by the governor or his allies. To do that, she said, her office requested an official referral that would provide the investigation – which will be handled by an outside law firm – subpoena power.
In backing down from his initial positions, Cuomo – who over a decade in office has kept a powerful grip on the workings of the state government – signaled an understanding of the severity of a scandal that could threaten his job and prospects for reelection next year to a fourth term. The new accusation drew attention from top state elected officials and a call, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” from White House press secretary Jen Psaki for “an independent review of these allegations.” Psaki called them “serious” and said, of the second accusation, it had been “hard to read that story, as a woman.”
Cuomo’s office had initially selected former federal Judge Barbara Jones to investigate claims of sexual harassment made against the governor by two female former aides, but the choice was publicly rejected by several high-profile New York Democrats, who argued that Cuomo should have no role in shaping the probe.
Beth Garvey, special counsel and senior adviser to the governor, in a statement earlier Sunday then asked James and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to choose “an independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation” to conduct a “thorough review” and issue a report on the matter in an effort to “avoid even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics.”
But that push, too, was rejected by James, who in a pair of statements of her own made clear the conditions under which her office could conduct an independent probe.
“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,” James said.
“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.”
Early on Sunday afternoon, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand backed James.
“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 in a press release.
The claims against Cuomo that will be investigated include one that 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, which the governor denied in a statement on Saturday.
“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.”
A separate allegation was made by Lindsey Boylan, another former Cuomo aide, who wrote a detailed post on Medium last week about her own claims of sexual harassment against Cuomo, which his aides have said are untrue.
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.”
Among the Democrats who called on Cuomo to let the attorney general and chief judge appoint an independent investigator is New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, who wrote in a tweet on Saturday: “As has become standard practice in the State of New York when allegations relate directly to the Executive, Governor Cuomo should refer the matter to the Attorney General, who should, in turn, appoint an independent investigator.”
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez similarly wrote on Twitter on Sunday that there “must be an independent investigation - not one led by an individual selected by the Governor” to look into the allegations, which she called “extremely serious and painful to read.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Maeve Reston contributed to this report.