Politics

A Saturation of Fear

What the investigation of Andrew Cuomo has revealed.

Andrew Cuomo speaking at a podium at One World Trade Center
Andrew Cuomo on June 15 in New York City. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

The official report concluding the five-month investigation of allegations that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed women and created a hostile work environment is damning and conclusive. Attorney General Letitia James announced at Tuesday’s press conference that the two outside investigators found that at least 11 women had been harassed by the governor, including two previously unknown accusers. The report includes allegations by a woman (referred to as Executive Assistant #1) that Cuomo repeatedly hugged her, with the hugs increasing in tightness and intensity over time until she was actively pulling her pelvis away. She also said he reached under her blouse and grabbed her breast and “on occasion” her butt—once while taking a selfie with her. He also allegedly groped another state employee as they were being photographed. Asked about the hugs while being interviewed by investigators, Cuomo said that he “would go along” with tight hugs that Executive Assistant #1 initiated because he did not “want to make anyone feel awkward about anything.” The report notes that Cuomo ran his finger down the back of a state trooper (one of the new accusers) while saying “hey, you,” kissed her on the cheek in front of her colleague while she was on his protective detail, and, when she held the door open for him on another occasion, ran his hand across her belly to her right hip. He also asked the trooper why she didn’t wear a dress, said her suit made her look like an “Amish person,” and told her he was looking for a girlfriend who “can handle pain.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There are patterns in this report: Women who—unnerved and discomfited—documented and discussed their experiences and reactions with friends and colleagues contemporaneously. Conversations with superiors that often went nowhere or left the complainants with the feeling they should keep quiet. An army of enablers who normalized egregious conduct. And at the center of it all: Andrew Cuomo, whose irascibility and penchant for political brawling helped foster an office culture in which his every whim was catered to. He has no compunction about behaving or speaking questionably even in front of witnesses, takes signs of discomfort from women either as insults or invitations to double down, and claims that every accusation is false or misinterpreted. Among the political achievements he’ll be remembered for is the production of a toxic but viciously effective Executive Chamber whose main and overriding mission it is to protect him.

Advertisement

It should be noted that the governor appears to have harassed more than one woman who didn’t work for him. After putting his hand on the back cutout of a woman’s dress, for instance, he responded to her grabbing and removing his wrist from her back by calling her aggressive, then asked to kiss her (another pattern). One of the new allegations in the report was that Cuomo had slid his fingers across the chest of a woman named Virginia Limmiatis while “tracing” the letters of the shirt logo for the energy company she worked for. Then he leaned in close and told her he was going to say he’d seen a spider on her shoulder before he proceeded, to her surprise and while she checked her shirt for bugs, to brush “his hand in the area between her shoulder and breast below her collarbone.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

But it’s Cuomo’s harassment of those who worked for him that raises “toxic workplace environment” to a primary conclusion of the investigation. The report documents a repulsive atmosphere. Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett have told their stories: harassment predicated on his power over them and veiled beneath a shallow performance of mentorship and care. But the investigation found that the hostility exceeded these claims and included a work culture in which Cuomo routinely kissed female staff on the forehead (and “senior staff on the lips”), referred to female staff as “honey” and “darling,” lay with his head in their laps, and “allowed” senior staff to sit in his lap at official functions. As Ana Liss, another former aide, put it to investigators: “For whatever reason, in his office, the rules were different. It was just, you should view it as a compliment if the Governor finds you aesthetically pleasing enough … so even though it was strange and uncomfortable and technically not permissible in a typical workplace environment, I was in this mindset that it was the twilight zone and … the typical rules did not apply.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

The governor has not denied that ordinary rules did not obtain. He has called himself “a little old-fashioned” and in his televised response to the report characterized his office as a “demanding place to work” that is “not for everyone. It’s not a typical office and I don’t want it to be.“

Advertisement

But what investigators have determined is that this “old-fashioned” work culture of Cuomo’s was one saturated in fear. Witnesses they interviewed “expressed concern and fear that providing any negative information to us in our investigation would lead to harm and retribution. Their trepidation arose from the way in which they observed the Executive Chamber respond to anyone who might do or say anything that was damaging to the Governor.” They were afraid not just of the governor but the office. It was a lesson Cuomo’s victims had absorbed better than most employees. The executive assistant whose breast Cuomo grabbed said, “Who am I going to tell? My supervisor was Stephanie Benton … the Governor’s right-hand person.”

Advertisement

Indeed, it’s notable that Letitia James summarized the report as concluding that the governor and his senior team engaged in prohibited retaliation against a former employee, Lindsey Boylan. In response to her December accusations, the Executive Chamber released confidential files pertaining to Boylan’s employment, and circulated the draft of an “op-ed” that, though it was never published, was criticized for shaming victims and inaccurate enough that a person tasked with fact-checking it was unable to verify many of its claims. It can reasonably be seen as an effort to destroy her reputation and it had a chilling effect. Executive Assistant #1, wondering whether she should come forward herself, testified to watching the efforts to discredit Boylan: “I would be in the room when they were actively trying to discredit her. They were actively trying to portray a different story of it. Trying to make her seem like she was crazy and wanting to get her personnel file out.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Investigators found that the Executive Chamber’s written policies “were robust and consistent with the requirements of New York State law.” The issue was not that the Executive Chamber misunderstood the law but rather a knowing refusal to enforce it.

Bennett’s experience trying to get her complaints heard, as documented by the report, is especially illuminating. She informed Jill DesRosiers, then the governor’s chief of staff, of Cuomo’s inappropriate conversations and said she no longer wanted to interact with him. This was on June 10, 2020. Per the report, no follow-up questions were asked and Bennett was not told she would be protected against retaliation if she wished to make a complaint. She was simply transferred. Not until almost three weeks later—when word came back that she’d told junior staffers what happened with Cuomo in some distress—was she brought in and interviewed. The report here acquires an aphoristic quality: “Ms. Bennett expressed fear of what would happen if the Governor knew she had told anyone. Ms. DesRosiers and Ms. Mogul found Ms. Bennett to be credible.” But rather than report to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, or GOER, as would have been proper, Judy Mogul, Cuomo’s special counsel, decided to screen the incidents herself and determine whether in her view they constituted sexual harassment. As the report details, her screening protocol included characterizing “the Governor calling Ms. Bennett ‘Daisy Duke,’ a commonly understood sex symbol (as any quick internet search would reveal), as merely a reference to her wearing shorts.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

When Bennett followed up to see whether the incidents needed to be reported to GOER (which she correctly determined they must, and she was worried about blowback), Mogul told Bennett “they did not need to report it because Ms. Bennett had taken action to stop the Governor’s offensive conduct before it crossed a line.” A curious line to be sure, putting the onus on the victim to stop the governor, but Bennett expressed appreciation. Bennett would later testify that in responding to Mogul and DesRosiers she was doing her best to seem agreeable and reassure the Executive Chamber that “she was not a threat.”

Advertisement

This, too, is a pattern—nervous accommodation by would-be complainants to forestall being crushed by the governor’s image management machine. The investigation noted that whenever the Executive Chamber received allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo, the group of people receiving information and helping to drive the response included an inappropriately large cohort of individuals with no current role in the governor’s office and no obligation to the state, including Cuomo’s brother and CNN host Chris Cuomo, Josh Vlasto, Steve Cohen, and a Facebook PR staffer who used to work as Cuomo’s communications director. Put differently: When victims came forward, their most sensitive claims were shared with a powerful circle of uncompensated Cuomo loyalists that extended well beyond the Executive Chamber, many of whom helped strategize his defense.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Here’s another instructive example of how this group helped elicit accommodation from Cuomo’s alleged victims: When another employee, known only as Kaitlin, tweeted in support of Boylan, Mogul and DesRosiers turned their attention to her. Kaitlin had reported an uncomfortable encounter with Cuomo, and her superior informed the Executive Chamber that she’d said she was retaining an attorney. In short order, Kaitlin noticed that one high-ranking officer and one Cuomo loyalist had checked her LinkedIn page. Another former colleague tried to get her to agree that she hadn’t been sexually harassed (taping the call and telling investigators that she’d done it at the request of top aide Melissa DeRosa). When the accuser found out the Executive Chamber had been told she’d retained an attorney, “she became very upset and told the head of her agency that she was not claiming sexual harassment, had not hired an attorney, and wished to convey that to the Chamber.” Thus reassured, Mogul stopped investigating. She did not ask Kaitlin about any of the incidents she’d reported, express concern, or inform her that she’d be protected if she did decide to file a complaint. It’s hard to conclude that she was investigating anything other than the possibility of bad PR for Andrew Cuomo.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

That conclusion helps explain the parts of the report that are focused less on the experiences of his accusers than on the coercive tactics the Executive Chamber resorted to in order to combat calls for his resignation. In early March, DeRosa, secretary to the governor, asked her predecessor Larry Schwartz, then serving as the state’s COVID-19 “vaccine czar,” to call Democratic county executives and ascertain whether they thought Cuomo should resign because of the allegations. Schwartz obliged. Per the report, he started calling county executives who knew him as the vaccine czar. The report paraphrased him as saying, “I’m not calling you about vaccines, I’m calling because you’ve taken a public position calling for an independent investigation by the Attorney General’s office and you’re going to wait for the outcome of that investigation. Is that still your position?” According to investigators, one county executive clearly “understood the call to contain an implicit threat linking access to vaccines for County Executive #1’s county … with County Executive #1’s position on the allegations regarding the Governor.” DeRosa asked Schwartz to make that same set of calls two weeks later. He did, saying, “We hope you can continue to hold your position in terms of the investigation.” Schwartz and DeRosa both testified that they could not fathom executives being pressured; Schwartz said that “to his recollection, none of the County Executives expressed discomfort during his calls.” And to be fair, no other county executives told investigators they found the calls threatening. Still: the hammer doesn’t ask how the nail is feeling.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Here, after all, is the kind of thing that happened when someone did communicate any discomfort in this environment: The state trooper who was driving Cuomo when he asked her why she didn’t wear a dress had confided to the trooper in the tail car that the conversation had taken place. Her detail commander then sent her a private “PIN” that said: “stays in the truck.” Per the report, “she testified that after she received the PIN message, she realized she ‘messed up’ by telling the Trooper in the tail car about the conversations in the Governor’s car and stated that the PIN message ‘silenced’ her.” It was a message Cuomo himself would drive home: “don’t tell anyone about our conversations,” he told her in December 2019. It doesn’t matter if the detail commander was close to Cuomo or not, or if Cuomo explicitly requested discretion from the detail commander. This is what a culture is.

Cuomo’s televised response to the investigation’s report was equal parts canny and unwise. In a 14-minute statement, he claimed, echoing a justification offered by Joe Biden, that he touches people to “connect” with them—a claim he supported by narrating over a peculiar slideshow of him clutching and kissing the faces of people of various and ages and genders—“Black and white, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, powerful people, friends, strangers, people who I meet on the street.” He also included a denial that—given the sheer number of witnesses interviewed—was more blunt than wise: “I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.” He cast himself as vulnerable and sensitive by sharing that a female relative had been sexually assaulted and he’d suffered with her, and tried to seem decent by wishing Charlotte Bennett well. Then came the turn: He argued that criticizing the female managers close to him for what he called their “toughness” and others might call their fierce personal loyalty to him was “sexist.” Finally, and tellingly, he attacked the rest of his accusers, implying that they were doing “real” victims a disservice: “And for those who are using this moment to score political points or seek publicity or personal gain, I say they actually discredit the legitimate sexual harassment victims that the law was designed to protect.”

Whether or not the defiance will save his job seems almost beside the point. One might only need to recall the hubbub over Cuomo’s March 3 presser after Bennett’s allegations had been published. Per the report, the aides were texting one another in real time about whether he was doing what he needed to in order to survive politically. Even they had come to a consensus that he needed to communicate regret and that he’d screwed up. He would not do it. As strategist Lis Smith put it in that group text: “Tone is not contrite.”

Advertisement