ALBANY, N.Y. – Facing detailed sexual harassment allegations from two former aides, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Saturday ceded to calls from lawmakers and critics who said the situation warranted an outside investigation.
But Cuomo chose to break with recent precedent, declining to refer the matter to state Attorney General Letitia James and instead directing it to former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones, who once worked as partners at a law firm with one of the governor’s closest advisers.
By refusing to refer the matter to James, Cuomo is taking a different tact than his predecessor, Gov. David Paterson, who had tasked the attorney general in 2010 with probing a scandal within the governor’s office. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer also faced an attorney general investigation 2 1/2 years before.
And nobody would know that better than Andrew Cuomo himself: He was the attorney general at the time of both previous investigations.
Now, state and federal lawmakers from both parties are raising concern about Cuomo’s decision to refer the sexual harassment matter to Jones, with some questioning whether Cuomo, a Democrat, will give the former judge full independence to follow wherever the facts may lead.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday there “should be an independent review looking into these allegations” and she said that was “certainly something” President Joe Biden supports and wants to see “move forward as quickly as possible.”
Among the Democratic lawmakers calling for an independent probe are state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and U.S. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, all of whom signaled late Saturday they would like to see the matter referred to James, the Democratic attorney general.
“As has become standard practice in the State of New York when allegations relate directly to the Executive, Governor Cuomo should refer the matter to the Attorney General, who should, in turn, appoint an independent investigator,” Nadler said in a statement.
Rep. Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., joined the calls for an independent investigation on Sunday, tweeting it should not be “led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General.”
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Cuomo facing two scandals at once
Cuomo has been embroiled in scandal on two fronts in recent weeks.
His administration is facing a federal investigation for its handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, which was launched after top aide Melissa DeRosa acknowledged holding back key death data and information from lawmakers and the public after receiving an inquiry from the U.S. Department of Justice last year.
Cuomo has also been accused of sexual harassment by two former aides, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett.
Boylan wrote an essay Wednesday claiming Cuomo made inappropriate comments to her and once kissed her on the lips without her consent while she worked for his administration from 2016 to 2018.
In an article published Saturday, Bennett told The New York Times the governor had asked her suggestive, line-crossing questions about her romantic relationships and preferences last year, while the state was in the midst of its response to the pandemic.
Cuomo, in a statement issued late Saturday, said he had “never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate.” His press secretary had previously issued a blanket denial of Boylan’s claims.
In his statement, Cuomo said he agreed to a “full and thorough outside review.” His special counsel, Beth Garvey, said that review would be conducted by Jones, the former judge.
“I ask all New Yorkers to await the findings of the review so that they know the facts before making any judgements,” Cuomo said. “I will have no further comment until the review has concluded.”
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Lawmakers want a more independent review
Almost immediately, lawmakers began questioning the independence of Jones’ review, noting she once served as a partner at the New York City law firm Zuckerman Spaeder at the same time as Steven Cohen, Cuomo’s former top aide and one of his most trusted confidants.
Stewart-Cousins, the state Senate leader, called for a “truly independent investigation” to begin immediately. Her spokesman, Mike Murphy, said Cuomo’s pick of Jones does not satisfy that requirement.
The “Attorney General’s Office should handle it,” Murphy wrote in an email.
Heastie, the state Assembly speaker, also issued a statement calling for a “truly independent investigation.” His spokesman, Mike Whyland, said the attorney general should get to pick who does the job.
“The Speaker believes the Attorney General should make an appointment to ensure that it is a truly independent investigation,” Whyland wrote in an email.
Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, Niagara County, also called for the attorney general’s involvement.
“The review suggested by someone handpicked by the governor himself, is an outrageous, completely unacceptable idea,” Ortt said in a statement. “We need a truly independent investigation, which is why I continue to support the calls of my colleagues for a Special Prosecutor appointed by the Attorney General.”
Some others, including state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Pelham, Westchester County, called for Cuomo’s resignation.
Biaggi, who once worked as an attorney in Cuomo’s office, is among a wave of younger, progressive-leaning lawmakers who are increasingly populating the halls of the state Capitol, many of whom have shown a willingness to criticize the powerful governor.
“While a truly independent investigation may uncover more evidence or instances of abuse, the existing details are sufficient for me to form my conclusion,” Biaggi said in a statement.
“As a New Yorker, a legislator, Chair of the Senate Ethics and Internal Governance Committee, and a survivor of sexual abuse, I am calling for Governor Cuomo to resign.”
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Attorney general has not yet commented
James, a Democrat first elected attorney general in 2018, has not yet commented on the calls for her office to take control of the harassment investigation. A spokesperson did not immediately to a request for comment late Saturday.
For most probes of the executive chamber, Cuomo would have to make a formal referral to the attorney general’s office. Without that, the attorney general would generally be limited to a civil investigation.
Cuomo, who has been governor since 2011, had been tasked with investigating governors twice during his one term as attorney general from 2007 through 2010.
In 2007, then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno asked Cuomo to investigate Spitzer’s role in disseminating information about his travel on the state airplane, called Troopergate. Within three weeks, Cuomo issued a scathing report that concluded Spitzer’s staff had ordered State Police to keep special records of Bruno’s travel.
Two and a half years later, Paterson asked Cuomo to investigate after the then-governor and his advisers faced questions about their actions after an aide, David Johnson, faced accusations of domestic violence. The request came at a time when Cuomo was widely believed to be considering challenging Paterson in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor.
Cuomo chose to appoint former Chief Judge Judith Kaye as special investigator; Kaye concluded Paterson and his aides erred in judgment but did not act criminally.
Cuomo also appointed Kaye to investigate whether Paterson perjured himself in testimony about how he obtained tickets to a World Series game featuring the New York Yankees, though the request for the investigation came from the state Commission on Public Integrity.
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Cuomo’s office promises independence
On Saturday, Cuomo’s office pointed to Jones’ credentials, pointing to her 16-year run as a judge in New York’s Southern District and her recent work investigating misconduct at the New York Philharmonic. Jones is now a partner at Bracewell LLP.
”There are no limits on the scope of Judge Jones’ review,” said Garvey, Cuomo’s special counsel.
James, the attorney general, had been considered a political ally of Cuomo, who endorsed her successful run for the office in 2018.
But James recently flexed her independence on Jan. 28, when she issued a report on COVID-19 in nursing homes that chastised Cuomo’s administration for failing to tell the public the number of nursing home residents who had died in hospital and hospice settings.
Prior to the report, Cuomo’s administration had only released the number of nursing home residents who had died of COVID-19 in the homes themselves. Within hours of James’ report, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker revealed about 4,000 residents had died in hospitals or hospice, too.
The Attorney General’s Office, meanwhile, has served as a launching pad for future governors, including Cuomo and Spitzer.
James herself has never publicly expressed interest in the governor’s job, though she joked last week that others have referred to AG as “aspiring governor.”
“We have been putting our heads down, not focusing on the politics but focusing on the law,” James said Feb. 22 at the DealBook DC Policy Project.
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Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.