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Cuomo addresses harassment claims, vows to stay in office

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday rejected calls for his resignation in the face of sexual harassment allegations that have threatened his hold on power and damaged his national political standing.
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ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday rejected calls for his resignation in the face of sexual harassment allegations that have threatened his hold on power and damaged his national political standing.

The Democrat, speaking somberly in his first public appearance since three women accused him of inappropriate touching and offensive remarks, apologized and said that he “learned an important lesson” about his behaviour around women.

“I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” Cuomo said. “It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it.”

Asked about calls for him to step aside, the third-term governor said: “I wasn’t elected by politicians, I was elected by the people of the state of New York. I’m not going to resign.”

Cuomo acknowledged “sensitivities have changed and behaviour has changed” and that what he considers his “customary greeting” — an old-world approach that often involves kisses and hugs — is not acceptable.

But the allegations against the governor go beyond aggressive greetings.

Former aide Lindsey Boylan accuses Cuomo of having harassed her throughout her employment and said he once suggested a game of strip poker aboard his state-owned jet. Another former aide, Charlotte Bennett, said Cuomo once asked her if she ever had sex with older men.

Both women rejected Cuomo's latest apology, doubling down on their disgust after he issued a statement Sunday attempting to excuse his behaviour as his way of being “playful."

“How can New Yorkers trust you @NYGovCuomo to lead our state if you ‘don’t know’ when you’ve been inappropriate with your own staff?” Boylan tweeted.

Cuomo said he will “fully co-operate” with an investigation into the allegations overseen by the state's independently elected attorney general. Attorney General Letitia James, also a Democrat, is selecting an outside law firm to conduct the probe and document its findings in a public report.

Cuomo addressed the allegations during a news conference that otherwise focused on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the kind of briefings that made him a daily fixture on TV and a national star among Democrats. Before that, Cuomo last spoke to reporters during a conference call on Feb. 22. His last briefing on camera was Feb. 19.

Two of the women accusing Cuomo worked in his administration. The other was a guest at a wedding that he officiated.

Bennett, 25, said Cuomo quizzed her about her sex life, asked if she felt age made a difference in relationships and said he was fine dating "anyone above the age of 22." Bennett said she believed he was gauging her interest in an affair. Cuomo has denied making advances on Bennett.

Boylan, 36, said Cuomo commented on her appearance inappropriately, kissed her without her consent and went out of his way to touch her on her lower back, arms and legs. Cuomo has denied Boylan’s allegations.

Anna Ruch told The New York Times that Cuomo put his hands on her face and asked if he could kiss her just moments after they met at a September 2019 wedding in Manhattan.

Cuomo didn't answer directly when asked by a reporter if he could assure the public that there were no other former aides who would come forward.

“The facts will come out” in the attorney general's investigation, he said, reiterating his position that he “never knew at the time” that he was making anyone feel uncomfortable.

Bennett's lawyer, Debra Katz, said the governor's news conference “was full of falsehoods and inaccurate information.”

She said Cuomo's claim that he was unaware he had made women uncomfortable was disingenuous, considering that Bennett had reported his behaviour to her boss and one of Cuomo's lawyers.

“We are confident that they made him aware of her complaint and we fully expect that the Attorney General’s investigation will demonstrate that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or to ensure that corrective measures were taken, in violation of their legal requirements,” Katz said.

The harassment allegations follow accusations that Cuomo covered up the true COVID-19 death toll on nursing home residents. Cuomo’s support has plummeted amid the one-two punch of scandals, and even some Democrats have called on him to step aside.

“I don’t think it’s in his DNA to resign or back down,” said Queens Assembly member Ron Kim, a Democrat who accused Cuomo of bullying him over the nursing home issue. “I think he will do whatever it takes to fight this.”

Cuomo said he inherited his gregarious way of greeting people from his father, the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and that he intended to be welcoming and make people feel comfortable.

Speaking about the allegations, Cuomo initially said he was apologizing to “people” who were uncomfortable with his conduct, but he didn’t make clear as he continued which of the women he was referring to.

At one point, he said he was apologizing to “the young woman who worked here who said that I made her feel uncomfortable in the workplace.” That description could apply to both Boylan and Bennett.

Asked what he was saying to New Yorkers, Cuomo said: “I’m embarrassed by what happened... I’m embarrassed that someone felt that way in my administration. I’m embarrassed and hurt and I apologize that somebody who interacted with me felt that way.”

The governor, who has touted a law requiring all workers in New York to receive sexual harassment training, said he felt at the time that his behaviour was innocuous but now acknowledges that sexual harassment centres on how the victim is impacted — not the offender’s intent.

"If a person feels uncomfortable, if a person feels pain, if a person is offended, I feel very badly about that and I apologize for it. There's no but — it's, 'I'm sorry,'” Cuomo said.

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This story has been updated to correct the day of the press briefing. It was on Wednesday, not Tuesday.

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Sisak reported from New York. Associated Press reporter David Bauder contributed to this report.

Marina Villeneuve And Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press