ALBANY — A state ethics board has cleared Sam Hoyt, a former top economic development aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, of violating state law after a sexual harassment probe found Hoyt’s accuser wasn’t credible, according to a board letter provided by Hoyt’s lawyer.
The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics found the claims against Hoyt, a former state assemblyman, were “unsupported by the evidence.” The commission said the woman’s claims were “false in every respect,” although the probe was hindered by limited cooperation from the accuser, according to the letter.
JCOPE said the evidence showed the state employee, Lisa Maria Cater, in 2016 threatened to reveal the relationship publicly unless Hoyt provided her with $350,000. Hoyt settled with $50,000 of his own money, JCOPE said in a detailed two-page letter.
JCOPE’s letter said the woman who accused Hoyt, Lisa Marie Cater, was “uncooperative, making it difficult to ascertain the nature of her complaint and its underlying facts except as otherwise set forth” by hundreds of pages of documents and testimony.
“There is conflicting evidence concerning the exact nature and extent of your relationship with Ms. Cater, but the weight of the evidence supports the existence of a consensual personal relationship with her which started in 2016,” the letter to Hoyt said.
Nonetheless, the panel said it did not “find Ms. Cater or any of her claims to be credible,” and said some of the evidence she provided “was fabricated.”
“The commission has found no evidence that you at any time used your official position to help Ms. Cater obtain a job, gather other assistance, threaten her employment, or extort sexual favors,” JCOPE said in the letter to Hoyt.
Cater’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
JCOPE is run by Cuomo appointees and has been criticized by good government groups and one founding commissioner, who resigned after being deemed too close to Cuomo. The letter was signed by Seth Agata, JCOPE executive director, who had been Cuomo’s counsel. JCOPE in a news release said it had the “utmost confidence” in Agata.
Cater’s attorney Paul Liggieri said Cater “Cater cooperated to the best extent possible; however, Ms. Cater felt a lack of confidence in the JCOPE process because they are far from an independent board. Claims of sexual harassment must be taken seriously by JCOPE and by the State of New York. The claims should be handled by experts in the area or by a separate independent advisory body.”
Common Cause-NY, a good-government group that has sought tougher sexual harassment protections in Albany, also questioned the verdict.
JCOPE “was not set up to investigate sexual harassment nor is it qualified to do so,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause.
“The nearly all male body cannot credibly investigate or draw conclusions about what did and did not happen in the Hoyt case. Nor is the victim’s lack of cooperation an indication of guilt; more likely a lack of confidence in the process. Unfortunately this leaves the public without a reliable resolution to this persistent problem,” Lerner said.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the governor’s office was “not a party to the investigation by JCOPE — a body made up of Democratic and Republican appointees from the legislature and the chamber — and read about its findings in the media.”
Hoyt was an influential assemblyman in the Buffalo area until he resigned in 2011. While in the Assembly, he was disciplined after having an “improper relationship” with an intern. Hoyt denied the allegation.
Hoyt had held the seat since 1992, succeeding his father, William Hoyt, who first won the seat in 1975.
JCOPE said evidence showed Hoyt helped Cater find a residence and “assisted her in finding employment with the Department of Motor Vehicles.” JCOPE noted that Hoyt wasn’t a supervisor in the DMV.
Later, Hoyt obtained voluntary disability leave days from other employees to be used by Cater, the panel said. State labor contracts allow employees to contribute disability days to colleagues in need.
Carrie H. Cohen, who is representing Hoyt in a federal lawsuit brought by Cater, said: “We also are pleased that after a thorough and complete investigation, JCOPE found the complainant’s allegations to be without merit and hope that these false allegations no longer will be used as fodder for political gain.”
Republican nominee for governor Marc Molinaro and Working Families Party nominee for governor Cynthia Nixon last week criticized Cuomo’s handling of the Hoyt case.
They said Cuomo was responsible for hiring Hoyt, who had been disciplined in the Assembly for sexual harassment, and for not properly or quickly investigating the latest claims.
“As long as JCOPE is controlled by the governor, it will have zero credibility to take on corruption or sexual harassment within his administration” said Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.
Molinaro said “JCOPE is a direct political appendage of Andrew Cuomo and this decision reeks of another whitewash.”