Brigid Bergin is a senior reporter at WNYC in New York who attended a press conference held Tuesday about the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. He has been under investigation for sexual harassment for months—and yesterday, state Attorney General Letitia James laid out the findings of her 168-page report that resulted: “The independent investigation has concluded that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, and in doing so, violated federal and state law.” Another prosecuted stated that “our investigation revealed that these were not isolated incidents—they were part of a pattern.” (Full disclosure: My husband works for the attorney general, but he was not involved in the investigation.) One investigator after another laid out the specific stories of nearly a dozen women, from where they were touched to what nicknames Cuomo gave them. Most of these women were state employees who had uncomfortable experiences with the governor. Some of them had come forward months ago—like Charlotte Bennett, an aide who said Cuomo asked her how she felt about monogamy and nicknamed her “Daisy Duke.” All of their stories are backed up with an appendix full of text messages and email exchanges. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Bergin about what happens now that the investigation into Andrew Cuomo has come to an end—and why his political fight may be just getting started. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Brigid Bergin: I think what was so surprising was the level of detail that they revealed even in the press conference. I spoke with an employment attorney who investigates and prosecutes cases of sexual harassment, and she told me she was stunned about how specific the details are in this report. It describes each of these interactions from members of his office, executive assistants who worked with him, all to way to a state trooper who was assigned to his detail!
Mary Harris: Something else was clear in this press conference, which is that the attorney general’s investigation is limited in some ways. Reporters kept asking her, What’s your next move right now? James won’t be able to prosecute anything here, even though she found real harm was done and concludes that firmly.
I think that while this may be the end of James’ investigation of this, we are very far from the end of this story. The effort to make clear to the public everything that the investigators have found is something that I think from the beginning they had committed to doing. I think it’s not something we always see. Certainly, this report is beyond thorough.
What was also interesting ws to hear how the governor responded to it, which is to say, his lawyers issued their own report where they tried to respond to some of the complaints that had been made public and that they anticipated. That was also that was a strange strategy.
One of the things that was clear even back in March, when some of these allegations were coming out, the pushback you would hear was related to due process. That was the talking point that a lot of lawmakers who were supporting the governor were using—
Let the investigation play out.
Exactly. That he was entitled to hear what the charges were against him and to be able to respond. But Tuesday, some of the individuals who were more generous or supportive earlier this year started to take a much more aggressive stance.
One reason some politicians may be reconsidering having Cuomo’s back is because this new report lays out so much. Some allegations are corroborated. Many stories seem to show an abuse of power. The case of the state trooper is a good example. The attorney general’s report documents how this young woman was hired for her job after being spotted at an event by the governor. The qualifications for her position were even altered so she could transfer to the state Capitol, despite the fact that she hadn’t served the standard number of years for a gubernatorial detail. And once she was in her job, the harassment began.
Even staffers who weren’t being harassed thought their workplace was toxic, and they shared notes and texts revealing that they believed the governor’s accusers. Part of Cuomo’s defense is, I didn’t intend to treat people in a certain way. They’re seeing it in a way that I didn’t intend. But when you have all this documentation from other people in the workplace saying that they see these dynamics too, it kind of means that that defense isn’t valid anymore. It doesn’t matter how you intended it if actually your entire office perceives it in a different way.
Exactly. It’s the pattern, and that’s what makes it makes it so significant. It is not a one-off incident or a single individual that we’re talking about. It’s multiple individuals over overlapping periods of time. It suggests a culture. It suggests a way of being and a way of governing, frankly.
It’s interesting to look at what Cuomo released and what the attorney general released side by side, because I think that reveals how much the governor was caught by surprise by the depth of the investigation—and there’s such a mismatch in the intent of each of these. If you look at James’ report, there are a ton of details: conversations where the governor is talking to employees about his hand size in ways that make people uncomfortable, asking his employees to memorize song lyrics and sing them back to him. All of these details are there but are not addressed in Cuomo’s response, which is much more general and has a lot of different excuses in there. One of them is, I’m just kind of a handsy guy in comparison with other politicians, who also give hugs.
Are you saying that because of the seven pages of photographs of him embracing other lawmakers, Mary?
Yes. I mean, just picture after picture of him embracing his mother, President Barack Obama embracing a hurricane victim—all with the implication that this is what politicians do. There’s even a paragraph in there where he brings in Sen. Chuck Schumer and says, He runs his office like a family, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my employees. I don’t know how Schumer feels about that. He’s already called on Cuomo to resign.
And Schumer reiterated that call.
To think about Cuomo’s comments in response, I think it’s worth reflecting on his initial comments about some of the earlier allegations this spring. There was one press conference where he apologized and said he never meant to hurt anyone, but also that he’d never touched anyone inappropriately. That moment is described in this report as triggering for some women who had experienced inappropriate contact with him. The response he gave, which was announced shortly after the press conference with James wrapped up, was a taped message. It was played through the governor’s website. He said the investigation was biased.
Some of the previous reporting that has been done on Cuomo discusses the experience of Charlotte Bennett—who’d stated that she was formerly a sexual assault survivor—with the creepy conversations that ensued between the governor and her, related to her relationships and her sex life and things that you would not imagine your supervisor—let alone the governor of New York state—talking to you about. In his response video, Cuomo made an explicit apology to her, but he also characterized her interpretation and her lawyer’s interpretation of things that he said as inaccurate. He also revealed that part of the reason he had engaged with her the way he had was because he had a family member who also experienced a sexual assault while in high school, and the family had gone through counseling. He said he was bringing that experience to the workplace, which, in retrospect, he said was wrong. But again, he’s framing it as being well intentioned, not necessarily understanding how some of his comments and behaviors could have rightfully been interpreted. And then he also went on to deny some of the allegations of inappropriate touching and went so far as to suggest that he looked forward to having his day in court so he could deny it.
So what happens now? It seems pretty clear from watching the governor’s response that he doesn’t plan to resign. He’s been embattled politically for months, and it hasn’t seemed to have made a difference. Are there any signs his fortunes could be changing?
Well, I think when the president of the United States, who is seen as an ally, says that you should resign, that is a sign of changing fortunes for sure. He is losing a lot of support among his most high-profile allies. And now we’re shifting into what could be a drawn-out or very swift impeachment trial by the New York State Assembly.
If Cuomo ends up leaving office in some way, what happens then?
So, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul would become the acting governor, should Andrew Cuomo resign or be forced out of office. If that is the case, we move obviously very quickly into an election cycle. Should she run for election to the to the post, she would very likely face a challenger. There would be a real domino effect, should Cuomo leave office or be removed, that would create a lot of openings and a lot of very ambitious and potentially patient people who’ve been waiting a long time for that moment.
If you had to guess, do you think we’re going to see Andrew Cuomo this week have any kind of appearance that isn’t recorded, that is with reporters where we understand what happens next?
I don’t think we are going to see him comment on the findings of this report in a way that is not controlled until he has figured out a strategy for dealing with it.
That’s different from the strategy that he’s been pursuing for the past few months.
Well, or it could be the same strategy—because that had worked up to this point—which is to see if he can let some time pass and let the news cycle change and then go back to doing the work he does and hope this doesn’t go any further than it has. I find it hard to believe that the state and state lawmakers will do nothing, and that that there won’t be additional lawsuits Cuomo could face, whether they are criminal or civil in nature.
I should note that the Assembly speaker recently issued some comments, and I think they suggest there will be action: “It is abundantly clear to me that the Governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office. Once we receive all relevant documents and evidence from the Attorney General, we will move expeditiously and look to conclude our impeachment investigation as quickly as possible.”
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