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Cuomo reverses course, calls for special investigator amid sexual harassment allegations

N.Y. Governor Cuomo's popularity dips
N.Y. Governor Cuomo's popularity dips 08:54

Facing mounting political pressure over allegations of sexual harassment, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that he would support the appointment of an independent special investigator to examine the claims against him. Cuomo also issued a number of statements on Sunday, including one in the evening apologizing and saying he "never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm."

Cuomo, a Democrat, initially called on the state attorney general and the chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals to jointly appoint "an independent and qualified lawyer" to "conduct a thorough review of the matter and issue a public report." 

After he backtracked on his initial request for the investigation, Attorney General Letitia James issued a statement that her office will "will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation."

James, a onetime Cuomo ally, rejected the governor's initial proposal, saying she alone has the authority to investigate the allegations once the governor formally refers the matter to her office.

"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, referring to the chief judge. "The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted."

Earlier Sunday, James said she she "stood ready" to oversee an investigation and "make any appointments necessary."

Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seen on September 8, 2020. Spencer Platt / Getty

Cuomo's support for an independent investigation is a reversal, after his special counsel said on Saturday night that a judge selected by the governor's office would investigate the allegations, an arrangement that was widely condemned as inadequate by elected officials across the state.

In a story published Saturday, a former aide told The New York Times that Cuomo had harassed her at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The woman, Charlotte Bennett, told the Times that Cuomo had asked her if she was open to a relationship with an older man — an encounter she interpreted as having sexual overtones. Bennett, 25, told the Times that when she told Cuomo's chief of staff about the encounter, she was transferred to another job on the other side of the state capitol.

Cuomo responded with a statement on Saturday night that he believed he was acting as a mentor and he "never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate."

In an updated statement Sunday evening, Cuomo said he "never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm. I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends." 

"At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny," Cuomo said. "I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. 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."

He contended that his actions may have been "misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that."

The allegations came in the same week that another ex-aide, former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor Lindsey Boylan, accused him of subjecting her to an unwanted kiss and inappropriate comments. Cuomo has denied those allegations.

The furor also comes as the governor is fighting off another scandal, with federal authorities investigating how his administration handled nursing home patients in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, Cuomo and his administration have been forced to admit the COVID-19 death toll for nursing home residents is nearly 15,000, almost double the previous number. The 15,000 figure includes patients in long-term care facilities and those who died after being taken to a hospital. 

While the Trump administration opened up an investigation into Cuomo's handling of the nursing home data, criticism intensified after a top aide admitted she was concerned that the data was "going to be used against us."

While some Republicans and Democrats have begun to call for Cuomo to step down amid the allegations, others, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have called for him to be stripped of the emergency governing powers that he was given at the height of the pandemic.

Cuomo is currently in his third term as governor, which is set to end in 2022.

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