ALBANY — A former aide who has accused Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of sexual harassment said Monday the governor has "refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior" and has sought to wield "his power to avoid justice."
Charlotte Bennett also issued a statement advising other women to come forward and hours later a third did so. Anna Ruch accused Cuomo of an unwanted advance at a 2019 wedding in which the governor touched her bare back, placed his hands around her cheeks and asked her for a kiss. She said she was shocked and pulled away. The New York Times reported her account, including a photo of the incident as it was happening.
The developments signaled a rapid increase in the crisis enveloping the third-term Democrat over sex harassment claims in just a matter of days. And it comes as Cuomo also is dealing with a federal investigation of his administration over the pandemic and a growing number of elected officials and others detailing what they call the governor's bullying behavior. The report of a third woman coming forward prompted more politicians to call for Cuomo’s resignation – this time from one of his allies, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) who wrote on Twitter: "The time has come. The governor must resign."
The fallout escalated first Monday when Bennett, whose harassment claims helped trigger a special investigation of the governor, said a statement Cuomo issued late Sunday was an attempt to recast history and downplay her allegations. In his statement, Cuomo said that he tried to act as a mentor to Bennett and that his behavior with women "may have been insensitive" and "misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation."
Bennett issued a statement through her attorney flatly rejecting that. She also criticized Cuomo for twice trying to set the parameters of who would investigate him before relenting and giving Attorney General Letitia James full authority in a letter the governor issued Monday morning.
"The Governor has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior," the former Cuomo staffer said. "As we know, abusers — particularly those with tremendous amounts of power — are often repeat offenders who engage in manipulative tactics to diminish allegations, blame victims, deny wrongdoing and escape consequences."
"It took the governor 24 hours and significant backlash to allow for a truly independent investigation," she continued. "These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice."
Cuomo did not immediately comment on Bennett’s statement. The New York Times first reported the statement.
Bennett issued it just hours after other developments Monday in the ongoing turmoil for Cuomo, who is in his 11th year in office:
- James said she received a formal letter Monday from Cuomo authorizing her to take charge of the probe. Setting aside a quirk in the statute governing such referrals, the governor said he’d waive the requirement that his office receive weekly updates on the probe.
- Cuomo has retained Elkan Abramowitz to represent him in an ongoing federal probe about the governor's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abramowitz is a white-collar defense attorney who represented Cuomo in an investigation that, while not implicating Cuomo, resulted in the conviction of his former top adviser. Abramowitz said he isn’t representing Cuomo in the sexual harassment inquiry.
- A top Democrat in the state Senate said legislative leaders are working on a bill that would "as soon as possible" strip Cuomo of extraordinary powers granted to him early in the pandemic.
- New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said if the sexual harassment allegations are proved, "there's no way he can govern," referring to Cuomo. A number of the governor's most vocal Democratic critics as well as Republicans have called for his resignation.
Three women have made accusations against the governor in less than a week.
The most recent story broke Monday night when the Times published Ruch's account of Cuomo's embrace and attempted kiss. She told the newspaper the governor seemed aggressive and she felt bewildered as it was happening.
"I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed," Ruch said. "I turned my head away and didn’t have words in that moment."
The Times said her story was corroborated not only by the photograph it posted but also by a friend in attendance and text messages.
Unlike Bennett and Boylan, Ruch did not work for the Cuomo administration.
In an interview published Saturday night, Bennett told The New York Times that Cuomo, 63, had questioned her on her sex life, asked her if she thought age made a difference in romantic relationships and said he was open to relationships with women in their 20s.
That report came just days after Lindsey Boylan, another former aide, had said she’d resigned after a series of episodes in which Cuomo made inappropriate comments and once kissed her without her consent.
On Saturday, Cuomo said he "never made advances" toward Bennett and suggested he’d ask a retired former federal judge to investigate the case.
That idea landed with a thud.
As did his second attempt, which suggested James and New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a Cuomo appointee, would oversee a review — which wouldn’t include subpoena power.
Under pressure from legislative leaders, the state’s two federal senators and a coalition of Democratic female legislators, Cuomo on Sunday night relented and said he would give James the necessary legal referral to investigate with full subpoena power.
The governor also issued a statement maintaining that he never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone. But he said that he had teased people about their personal lives in an attempt to be "playful."
"I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that," Cuomo said.
His statement drew immediate backlash from critics and from Bennett’s attorney.
"He was not acting as a mentor and his remarks were not misunderstood by Ms. Bennett," said Debra L. Katz, a Washington-based civil rights lawyer. "He was abusing his power over her for sex. This is textbook sexual harassment."
Katz said James must probe whether the governor subjected other women to a "sexually hostile work environment" and whether anyone in the administration "enabled his behavior."
The attorney general, meanwhile, said she's moving forward with investigating the harassment allegations after Cuomo sent her a formal letter granting her authority — it was a necessary step because state law prevents James' office from pursuing such matters without official designation.
The move allows James to deputize an outside law firm with full subpoena power and mandates that the findings will be made public. Recognizing a quirk in the state statute, Cuomo waived a requirement that the attorney general's office provide his office with weekly updates on the case.
The designating statute also makes clear the probe will be civil — not criminal — in nature.
"This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously," James said in announcing receipt of the referral.
On the third floor of the State Capitol, one floor above Cuomo, the Democratic-led Assembly on Monday took the unusual step of canceling the day's session in favor of closed-door meetings of each political party. Democrats said they planned a daylong conference to discuss nursing home legislation, suspending Cuomo's emergency powers to make or suspend laws, and the state budget — which amid all the turmoil is due in less than 30 days.
Lawmakers said the bid to rein in Cuomo's emergency powers has gained steam after weeks of controversies on multiple fronts. Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said the two houses were working to agree on a bill to do so "as soon as possible."