Inside Andrew Cuomo’s Retaliation Machine
The governor’s inner circle was in a frenzy: A former state employee had just publicly accused Andrew M. Cuomo of a yearslong sexual harassment …
The governor’s inner circle was in a frenzy: A former state employee had just publicly accused Andrew M. Cuomo of a yearslong sexual harassment campaign against her.
The group huddled in the State Capitol office of Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top aide, and launched an effort to discredit the woman, Lindsey Boylan, collecting a box of personnel files filled with sensitive information that they thought would undermine her credibility.
Before they could leak the files to reporters, some names had to be removed. One of the governor’s senior advisers hunted for Wite-Out with the help of an executive assistant — a woman who would later accuse Mr. Cuomo of groping her breast in the Executive Mansion.
That episode in December was just one of many described in a damaging report from the New York State attorney this week, which not only found that Mr. Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, but that a cadre of his top aides and associates engaged in unlawful retaliation against one of the women — retaliation that frightened others into maintaining their silence.
The report laid bare how Mr. Cuomo had come to rely on a small band of advisers to fine-tune his public response to the allegations and, in the most troubling instance, spearhead a campaign to stymie them.
As the investigators put it in their report, “The complainants’ fears of retaliation were justified.”
But the governor’s support network extended beyond his closest aides. He also sought counsel from his brother, Chris Cuomo; former administration officials like Alphonso David, now the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest L.G.B.T.Q. political lobbying organization in the country; and Tina Tchen, who heads Time’s Up, a group that supports victims of sexual harassment, and Roberta A. Kaplan, who runs its Legal Defense Fund.
Mr. David and Ms. Kaplan both reviewed a draft of a disparaging op-ed letter that was aimed at assailing Ms. Boylan’s character. The letter was never published, but the disclosure of Mr. David’s involvement has led to calls for his resignation from the Human Rights Campaign.
The governor, who has not left Albany since the report’s release on Tuesday, has continued to lean on his closest aides and the team of lawyers he has retained, as he charts a strategy for political survival. Mr. Cuomo spent Wednesday at the Executive Mansion discussing with advisers whether to hold another news conference to further respond to the allegations.
In the governor’s decade-long tenure, he has navigated Albany’s byzantine ways and steered the state’s bureaucracy using brute political force and heavy-handed tactics of bullying and intimidation. He has alienated many people along the way, turning onetime allies against him and narrowing his circle of confidants.
Mr. Cuomo’s special counsel, Judith Mogul, who handled complaints from some of the governor’s accusers, resigned this week. On Wednesday, he lost support from key labor leaders and one of his staunchest allies, Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party.
Others had abandoned him earlier this year, as additional women accused the governor of sexual misconduct, and his tone and strategy shifted from apologetic to increasingly defiant. The need for some to distance themselves became more urgent as they realized they would eventually be interviewed in the state attorney general’s investigation, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Josh Vlasto, the governor’s former chief of staff, told investigators that Mr. Cuomo had asked him earlier this year to spearhead the “politics and press operation” of the governor’s overlapping crises. But Mr. Vlasto, who was involved in the deliberations over releasing Ms. Boylan’s file, testified that he declined in part because he disagreed with the negative “style” the governor and his advisers had adopted in responding to the allegations.
Most of the governor’s top aides appeared to be more comfortable with that approach. Indeed, the report found that Mr. Cuomo’s inner circle helped enable the governor’s behavior, fostering a toxic workplace and a culture of retaliation where workers feared retribution for making minor mistakes, seeming disloyal or upsetting Mr. Cuomo.
The fear of retaliation also had a chilling effect: Many of the women who have now accused Mr. Cuomo said it was one of the underlying reasons that they did not immediately speak up or report their sexual harassment.
When Ms. Boylan first accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment in a post on Twitter in December — she called him “one of the biggest abusers of all time” — the governor’s aides leaked her personnel records and drafted the letter that assailed her character.
When an administration staffer, who was identified in the report only as Kaitlin, voiced her support for Ms. Boylan on Twitter, Mr. Cuomo’s top aides and outside loyalists quickly mobilized to seek out more information about whether Kaitlin was working for Ms. Boylan or had allegations against Mr. Cuomo, the report said.
Investigators Find Cuomo Sexually Harassed Multiple Women
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo denied the allegations in a New York Attorney General’s Office investigation that found he sexually harassed and intimidated several women, including current and former state employees.
“The independent investigation has concluded that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women and in doing so, violated federal and state law. Further, the governor and his senior team took actions to retaliate against at least one former employee for coming forward with her story, her truth.” “My attorney, who is a nonpolitical former federal prosecutor, has done a response to each allegation, and the facts are much different than what has been portrayed. I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.” “These were not isolated incidents. They were part of a pattern. The governor’s pattern of sexually harassing behavior was not limited to members of his own staff, but extended to other state employees, including a state trooper who served on his protective detail.” “One current employee who we identify as Executive Assistant No. 1, endured repeated physical violations. On Nov. 16, 2020, in the executive mansion, the governor hugged Executive Assistant No. 1, and reached under her blouse to grab her breast. The governor also several times inappropriately touched a state trooper assigned to the unit to protect the governor. In an elevator while standing behind the trooper, he ran his finger from her neck down her spine and said, ‘Hey, you.’ In addition to the physical conduct, our investigation found that the governor regularly made comments to staff members and state employees that were offensive and gender-based. For example, the governor crossed the line many times when speaking with Charlotte Bennett, a briefer and executive assistant, particularly in spring of 2020. When she confided in the governor that she had been sexually assaulted in college, he asked her for the details of her assault. When talking about potential girlfriends, he said he thought he could date women as young as 22, knowing that Ms. Bennett was 25 at the time. He asked her whether she had ever been with older men. He told her that he was lonely and wanted to be touched.” “And what this investigation revealed was a disturbing pattern of conduct by the governor of the great State of New York, and those who basically did not put in place any protocols or procedures to protect these young women who believed in public service. I believe women, and I believe these 11 women.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo denied the allegations in a New York Attorney General’s Office investigation that found he sexually harassed and intimidated several women, including current and former state employees.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Seth Wenig
A former staff member said she was “pressured” by Ms. DeRosa to call Kaitlin out of the blue and record the phone conversation, which Kaitlin described to investigators as “a fishing expedition on behalf of the executive chamber.”
Also involved in the discussions about the call and its recording, which senior staff testified was later destroyed, were Linda Lacewell, the superintendent of the state’s Department of Financial Services, as well as two outside advisers: Steven M. Cohen, a longtime friend of the governor who once served as his top aide, and Mr. David, who previously served as counsel to the governor, the report said.
Indeed, the report outlined how Mr. Cuomo’s staff often relied on former staffers who had “a proven, personal loyalty to the governor.” As Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, described the inner circle and its credo to investigators: “When you feel like you’re in a battle, you turn to those you trust.”
Investigators were especially alarmed that those former aides were sometimes trusted with privileged information and helped make governmental decisions, “all without any formal role, duty, or obligation to the state.”
Releasing Ms. Boylan’s confidential personnel files to reporters — a move that aides insisted was aimed at disputing her account of how she left her job in the Cuomo administration — was only the first step. The governor and his aides then drafted the letter attacking her credibility, suggesting that she treated her own subordinates poorly.
“Standing by silently is not an option,” a draft of the letter about Ms. Boylan said. “To do otherwise risks delegitimizing the rights of survivors of workplace abuse.”
At one point, a draft of the letter — which was to be signed by several current and former administration officials — sought to turn accusations back on Ms. Boylan, saying that she had called the governor “handsome” and told staff she “loved” him. At one point, Mr. Cohen suggested adding to the letter that Ms. Boylan was supported by “lawyers and financial backers” of President Donald J. Trump, according to emails that are not included in the report.
Understand the Scandals Challenging Gov. Cuomo’s Leadership
Multiple claims of sexual harassment. At least 11 women, including current and former members of his administration, have accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment, unwanted advances or inappropriate behavior. He has refused to resign, and focus has turned to the State Assembly’s ongoing impeachment inquiry.
Results of an independent investigation. An independent inquiry, overseen by the New York State attorney general, found that Mr. Cuomo had harassed the women, including current and former government workers, breaking state and federal laws. The report also found that he and aides retaliated against at least one woman who made her complaints public.
Nursing home death controversy. The Cuomo administration is also under fire for undercounting the number of nursing-home deaths caused by Covid-19 in the first half of 2020, a scandal that deepened after a Times investigation found that aides rewrote a health department report to hide the real number.
Efforts to obscure the death toll. Interviews and unearthed documents revealed in April that aides repeatedly overruled state health officials in releasing the true nursing home death toll for months. Several senior health officials have resigned in response to the governor’s overall handling of the pandemic, including the vaccine rollout.
Will Cuomo be impeached? The State Assembly opened an impeachment investigation in March. It has taken on new urgency with the release of the attorney general’s report, and its pace is now expected to pick up. Democrats in the State Legislature and New York’s congressional delegation, as well as President Biden, have called on Mr. Cuomo to resign, saying he has lost the ability to govern.
The report said Mr. David, who worked for Mr. Cuomo for eight years until 2019, was sent the letter but ultimately decided not to sign it because he didn’t know if some of the statements were true, saying he would help get other former staffers to sign it instead.
“I was never aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct, and no one ever reported them to me, as the report verifies,” said Mr. David, who has called on Mr. Cuomo to resign.
Ms. Kaplan, who had worked with Mr. Cuomo’s office before, also reviewed the letter along with Tina Tchen, the head of Time’s Up and once the chief of staff for the first lady, Michelle Obama, according to Ms. DeRosa’s testimony to investigators. Ms. DeRosa said that the two women had suggested that “without the statements about Ms. Boylan’s interactions with male colleagues, the letter was fine.”
In a statement, Ms. Kaplan said, “We were among a group of people asked for thoughts on a public response to Ms. Boylan’s allegations when they first came out in December 2020. While it turns out the response was never published, I made it very clear that any response should never shame an accuser. Given the revelations in the N.Y. A.G.’s report, I support and agree with Time’s Up that Governor Cuomo should resign.”
“It appears that we’re being used as cover,” Ms. Tchen said in an interview Thursday, noting that she had not been contacted by the attorney general’s investigators. “We certainly did not greenlight any sort of attack on survivors. We would never do that.”
Though the letter was never published, the attorney general’s report said a reporter saw a draft of it, and parts of it were communicated to another reporter. (The New York Times obtained draft copies of the letter and emails discussing it after the attorney general’s report was released Tuesday.)
Sean Hecker, Ms. DeRosa’s lawyer, said in a statement that she “consulted with and relied upon advice of experienced counsel” when deciding whether personnel records “could be provided to the public.” Ms. DeRosa told investigators she notified Mr. Cuomo about the personnel files after they were leaked in order to protect the governor from criticism. But other staffers said they assumed the governor — known as a hands-on manager, especially when it comes to press strategy — had approved the disclosure.
“We were shocked at the scope of the conspiracy to discredit Lindsey,” said Jill Basinger, a lawyer for Ms. Boylan who has said that Ms. Boylan intends to sue the governor and his advisers for their conduct.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Some in Mr. Cuomo’s inner circle thought the letter would backfire. In an email to Ms. DeRosa, Annabel Walsh, who was Mr. Cuomo’s scheduling director, gave a list of reasons not to make it public. The first was simply “Don’t do this.” Dani Lever, the governor’s former press secretary, said that the letter would be “victim shaming.”
There was also some understanding among Mr. Cuomo’s advisers that the letter could be seen as retaliatory, according to Ms. DeRosa’s testimony. It was certainly seen that way by other potential accusers, including the executive assistant who said Mr. Cuomo reached into her blouse and groped her breast.
“I would be in the room when they were actively trying to discredit her,” the executive assistant said of the efforts against Ms. Boylan. “They were actively trying to portray a different story of it. Trying to make her seem like she was crazy.”
Seeing that, she told investigators, had dissuaded her from reporting what the governor had done to her. She told them she was “terrified” about reporting the interaction and potentially losing her job, saying, “I was going to take this to the grave.”
“He definitely knew what he was doing was inappropriate,” she told investigators. “So any time that he would do something to me, he knew that at the end of the day if I told anyone, nothing was going to happen to him. If anyone, it was going to happen to me.”
She was not the only woman in the governor’s office who was afraid of reprisal.
Charlotte Bennett, a former aide to Mr. Cuomo who accused the governor of making sexual overtures by asking whether she had sex with older men and whether she was monogamous, did not pursue an investigation when she reported the interactions to her supervisor last year, the report said, “out of fear of the governor and retaliation.”
“I didn’t think any person I had talked to at any point, as nice as they were, were going to protect me from anything at all at any point,” Ms. Bennett, 26, told investigators. “I feel like I sat next to senior staff as they worked and I have no concept of how far they’d go to protect him and didn’t want to find out.”