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Cuomo Grilled for 11 Hours in Sexual Harassment Inquiry

For Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the setting and even the circumstances were familiar. He sat at a conference room table at his 39th-floor office in …

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Cuomo Grilled for 11 Hours in Sexual Harassment Inquiry

For Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the setting and even the circumstances were familiar. He sat at a conference room table at his 39th-floor office in Midtown Manhattan, facing a former federal prosecutor with whom he had tangled before.

The videotaped interview lasted about 11 hours, and Mr. Cuomo faced a barrage of questions under oath about his treatment of women, posed by the two lead investigators hired by the state attorney general’s office: Joon H. Kim, the former prosecutor, and Anne L. Clark, an employment lawyer.

After months of gathering detailed accounts from former and current female aides who have accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment and misconduct, Mr. Kim and Ms. Clark were finally hearing from the governor himself.

There were tense moments: At more than one point during the lengthy session, Mr. Cuomo confronted Mr. Kim, challenging his fairness and independence as a result of his past investigations into the governor and his allies.

Few details have emerged from the meeting, which took place on Saturday, July 17; the participants are barred under state law from publicly discussing the interviews, but five people briefed on the encounter shared some details on the condition of anonymity. The confidential nature of the meeting was underscored by the investigators’ exit: They were whisked away at night through a loading dock to avoid photographers staking out the entrance to the governor’s building.

The state attorney general, Letitia James, deputized Mr. Kim, now a private lawyer, and Ms. Clark to lead an independent investigation into several sexual harassment allegations made against the governor.

Mr. Kim and Ms. Clark have gathered hours of testimony from the women who have accused Mr. Cuomo of improper behavior, from hugs and inappropriate comments to unwanted kissing and touching. They have subpoenaed state records and collected emails, text messages and data from his staff’s BlackBerry devices.

More recently, they interviewed several members of the governor’s inner circle, focusing on officials who may have dealt with some of the complaints when they were initially made, or who were involved in the administration’s subsequent strategy sessions to discuss the accusations, according to people briefed on the matter. And investigators have visited the governor’s Executive Mansion in Albany, where one aide said Mr. Cuomo groped her.

The inquiry is believed to be nearing an end, with the findings to be sent to Ms. James, and a public report expected to be released by the end of summer.

The outcome could determine Mr. Cuomo’s fate. Once hailed as a hero of the pandemic but now fighting for his political life, he faces several investigations into whether he obscured the death toll of nursing home residents during the pandemic as well as a possible impeachment proceeding. He is likely to confront challengers should he seek re-election to a fourth term next year.

As the investigation begins to wind down, the governor has become more aggressive in trying to cast doubt on the women’s accounts, as well as the impartiality of the inquiry.

In March, Mr. Cuomo offered seemingly heartfelt remarks where he said he was embarrassed and apologized for making anyone “feel uncomfortable.” His most recent comments, however, have mostly focused on forcefully denying any wrongdoing and proclaiming he wants to tell his side of the story.

“I’m very eager to get the facts to the people of this state,” Mr. Cuomo said last Monday. “I think when they hear the actual facts, what happened, how the situation has been handled, I think they’re going to be shocked. Shocked.”

Mr. Cuomo authorized the investigation on March 1, a tactic that helped stave off calls for his resignation. But in recent weeks, the governor and his aides have sharpened their attacks, questioning Ms. James’s political motivations.

In recent weeks, Mr. Cuomo and his aides have sought to undermine the inquiry by questioning the motives of the state attorney general, Letitia James, and a chief investigator.Credit…Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Mr. Cuomo and his aides have also questioned Mr. Kim’s “independence.”

“The continued press leaks from this investigation provide further evidence about the documented bias of these reviewers,” said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo.

“This investigation started at the request of the governor after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment,” said Delaney Kempner, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general. “It is being carried out by independent investigators who have decades of experience. The continued attempts to undermine and politicize this process are dishonest and take away from the courage and bravery displayed by these women.”

As a top prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, Mr. Kim interrogated Mr. Cuomo in a federal investigation into the governor’s abrupt decision in 2014 to shut down the Moreland Commission, an anticorruption panel, according to three people familiar with the matter. Prosecutors ultimately closed that inquiry without bringing charges, but the investigation cast a cloud over the governor, dogging his re-election campaign at the time and raising suspicions about his commitment to rooting out public corruption in Albany.

During his brief stint as acting U.S. attorney, Mr. Kim was also involved in the prosecution of Joseph Percoco, a former top Cuomo aide who was convicted of federal corruption charges in 2018.

This time around, Mr. Kim’s investigation has unfolded during one of the most perilous chapters of Mr. Cuomo’s 10-year tenure.

“I think many of us are eager to see this conclude, one way or another, and get back to the business of government,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat who has called on Mr. Cuomo to resign. “But this is the calm before the storm: I think, truly, we’re about to hit the gale force winds of Albany, and it’ll be something to behold.”

While the report’s conclusions are unknown, Mr. Cuomo could, in theory, face criminal exposure if investigators were to determine that there is sufficient evidence of a crime — if, for example, an instance of unwanted touching could support a criminal charge — and were to refer the matter to a local district attorney for further investigation.

So far, the unnamed woman who said Mr. Cuomo groped her in the Executive Mansion last year has not filed a complaint with the Albany Police Department. Mr. Cuomo has denied the woman’s account, saying he has never touched anyone inappropriately.

The report is expected to shed light on the workplace culture — which many former staffers have described as toxic — and inner workings of the “second floor,” the location of the governor’s office in the Capitol.

Indeed, investigators have so far interviewed many of the governor’s most loyal aides as they scrutinize the details of the allegations and how they were handled — starting with the first accusation in December, when Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official, said in a series of Twitter posts that Mr. Cuomo had sexually harassed her.

After Ms. Boylan went public with her allegation, people close to the governor circulated a letter that attacked her credibility and disclosed complaints in her personnel records, efforts that Ms. Boylan’s lawyer has described as a form of retaliation.

Top Cuomo aides, including Mr. Azzopardi, also called former employees to ask about Ms. Boylan and whether they had heard from her. Some said they felt the calls were meant to intimidate them. Mr. Azzopardi has previously said the calls were not coordinated and were not meant to silence anyone. Later in February, Ms. Boylan provided more details about her allegation, saying Mr. Cuomo kissed her on the lips after a meeting in his Manhattan office.

Investigators have interviewed Mr. Azzopardi, two people briefed on the matter said, as well as Beth Garvey, Mr. Cuomo’s acting counsel; Linda Lacewell, the superintendent of the state’s Department of Financial Services and Mr. Cuomo’s former chief of staff and counselor; and Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, a fixture in Mr. Cuomo’s Covid-19 briefings and the top-ranking unelected official in the state.

They have also taken testimony from Stephanie Benton, the governor’s office director. Charlotte Bennett, who in February became the second former aide to accuse Mr. Cuomo, has said that she once overheard Ms. Benton say that she completed a mandatory sexual harassment training on behalf of the governor in 2019. The governor’s office has said Ms. Benton “categorically denies the exchange,” adding that Mr. Cuomo completed the training himself.

Investigators also questioned Judith Mogul, a special counsel who is resigning this week. Ms. Mogul was one of the Cuomo aides who handled Ms. Bennett’s complaint, which included allegations that Mr. Cuomo made inappropriate comments that she interpreted as sexual overtures while they were alone in his Albany office.

Ms. Bennett’s lawyers have said Ms. Mogul and Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff, Jill DesRosiers, failed to properly report Ms. Bennett’s complaint to a government agency that was supposed to conduct an investigation into the allegation. The governor’s office has said they handled the complaint according to the law.

Investigators also interviewed state troopers who are members of Mr. Cuomo’s security detail, which guards the governor in both public and private settings, including the Executive Mansion. One female aide, who has not been publicly identified, has accused Mr. Cuomo of reaching under her blouse and groping one of her breasts while they were alone in the second-floor office at the Executive Mansion.

Investigators issued subpoenas to at least four of the women who have accused Mr. Cuomo, but most have not confirmed whether they were interviewed, presumably because they are barred from speaking about the interviews. Ms. Bennett’s lawyer, however, has said that her client spoke with investigators for about eight hours in late May.

The impact of the report may well depend on how its findings are viewed by the State Assembly, which has the power to impeach the governor.

Last week, Carl Heastie, a Democrat and the Assembly speaker, said that the attorney general’s report alone might not be enough to commence impeachment proceedings — a statement that angered some of Mr. Cuomo’s accusers. Mr. Heastie said the report could become part of the Assembly’s impeachment investigation, which he said should be allowed to conclude before considering impeachment.

The Assembly’s investigation, which began in the spring, appeared to afford Mr. Cuomo some breathing room amid rising calls for his resignation. Dozens of Democrats in the Assembly urged patience and a full review of the allegations against him.

Interviews began months ago but appeared to proceed more slowly than those being conducted by the attorney general’s investigators. But in recent weeks, the outside lawyers whom the Assembly hired, from the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, have appeared to increase their activity, according to three people with knowledge of the investigation.

They have questioned or requested interviews with senior administration officials on a laundry list of subjects, including the state’s response to Covid-19 outbreaks in nursing homes and the policy of offering priority coronavirus testing, including to those close to Mr. Cuomo, two matters federal prosecutors are also looking at.

The impeachment lawyers are also scrutinizing the allegations of sexual harassment and toxic workplace culture; concerns over the safety of the new Mario M. Cuomo Bridge over the Hudson River; the possible introduction by a close Cuomo adviser of political considerations into vaccine distribution; and the use by Mr. Cuomo of state resources to help write his pandemic memoir, which the state attorney general is also looking at as part of a separate inquiry.

The Assembly’s investigators also appeared interested, the people said, in Mr. Cuomo’s book — for which Mr. Cuomo received a $5.1 million contract — and the question of how he could have crafted it so quickly at the height of the pandemic.

The sheer volume of topics suggested that the Assembly’s inquiry may yet provide time to Mr. Cuomo, who most political observers expect will run again next year.

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