by Steve Bittenbender
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces a renewed surge of calls for his resignation after an independent investigation released a report Tuesday finding the sexual harassment allegations against him credible and that his administration broke several laws in responding to some claims.
The report led President Joe Biden and other prominent national Democrats, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to say Cuomo needs to go.
“I think he should resign,” Biden told reporters Tuesday afternoon at the White House.
Earlier in the day, the embattled governor tried to refute the report in a video statement posted just a couple hours after state Attorney General Letitia James and the independent lawyers who conducted the five-month investigation released the report. The investigation included detailed information from 11 women who claimed Cuomo made advances, discussed inappropriate topics and initiated unwanted and unsolicited physical contact.
“I am 63 years old,” Cuomo said. “I have lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am, and that’s not who I have ever been.”
The governor also released a written response to the independent investigation. Included in that document are eight pages of 16 pictures showing him hugging and kissing both men and women.
Those images, one of which included Biden, all appear to be in public situations with other elected figures or family members.
“Look, I’m not going to flyspeck this,” Biden said. “I am sure there were some embraces that were totally innocent, but apparently, the attorney general decided there were things that weren’t.”
In his 14-minute statement, Cuomo said he frequently kisses and embraces people as well as tells jokes. It’s his attempt, he said, to connect with people and make them feel comfortable.
Calling it a learning experience, Cuomo said the administration is now making changes to the state’s policies and procedures regarding harassment.
“I now understand that there are generational or cultural perspectives that frankly I haven’t fully appreciated,” he said.
The governor also specifically singled out the allegations made by Charlotte Bennett, because he said it was important for the public to “understand the situation.”
Bennett served as an aide to him last year. She claimed the governor asked her questions about her sex life and if she was interested in being with older men.
After reporting the governor’s conduct, she was moved to another position. By last November, she had left the administration.
On Tuesday, Cuomo said Bennett disclosed to him that she was a sexual assault victim and that he was trying to help her cope.
“I did ask her questions I don’t normally ask people,” he said. “I did ask her how she was doing and how she was feeling. And I did ask questions to try to see if she had positive, supportive dating relationships. I know too well, the manifestations of sexual assault trauma and the damage that it can do in the aftermath.”
While he did apologize to her, Cuomo added that both she and her attorney not only misconstrued his intent but “they heard things that I just didn’t say.”
A message to Debra Katz, Bennett’s lawyer, seeking comment on Cuomo’s remarks was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon. However, Katz issued a statement after the attorney general’s report calling for Cuomo and others in the administration who enabled his harassment to resign.
“He subjected Charlotte to sexual harassment, individually, and created a sexually hostile and toxic work environment for all women,” Katz said. “Sadly, Charlotte was not the only extraordinary woman whose career in the Executive Department was cut short and derailed as a result of the Governor’s illegal behavior. The Governor’s actions have deprived New Yorkers of the professionalism, passion, and dedication to their state that Charlotte and the many others who refused to submit to his advances have to offer.”
In March, as more women stepped forward with claims, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both Albany and Washington said the allegations merited Cuomo’s resignation, with many adding that Cuomo should be impeached if he refused.
Those calls only grew louder Tuesday.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Assemblymember Anna Kelles, D-Ithaca, said that the attorney general’s report included “abundant evidence” and that the governor should be held accountable. In tweets following up her statement, she added that a resignation would not prevent the impeachment process from continuing.
“We should be as expeditious and thorough as possible,” Kelles tweeted. “We have enough to impeach so we should not delay unnecessarily.”
Assemblymember Karen McMahon, D-Williamsville, who sits on the Assembly Judiciary Committee that’s leading an impeachment inquiry into Cuomo, said in a statement that she found the report to be “deeply troubling.”
“I reiterate my earlier statement calling on the governor to step aside and allow Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to act in his stead, pending the conclusion of the Assembly impeachment investigation and any impeachment hearings,” she said.
The Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry includes a laundry list of investigations and scandals tied to the Cuomo administration. Besides the harassment allegations, they’re also looking into the nursing home policies during the COVID-19 emergency as well as Cuomo’s $5 million book deal last year on managing the pandemic, whether the governor gave people priority access to COVID-19 testing last year and concerns about withholding information about the integrity of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.
Critics have said the process was going too slow, as the Judiciary Committee started its investigation about a week after the independent lawyers assigned by James started theirs.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, was criticized less than two weeks ago after he told reporters he wasn’t sure if the attorney general’s report alone would be enough to impeach the governor.
On Tuesday, Heastie said in a statement that he found the report “disturbing” and “gut-wrenching,” and that Cuomo’s actions detailed in the report represent someone who is unfit for office.
“The Governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and … he can no longer remain in office,” Heastie said.
In his remarks, Cuomo did not specifically bring up the calls for his resignation or impeachment. However, he made it quite clear that he’s not planning to leave of his own volition – at least for now.
He said the state still needs to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes working to rebuild the economy. In recent months, he’s outlined an ambitious agenda to invest billions into new projects he’s claimed would transform the state.
“My job is not about me,” he said. “My job is about you. What matters to me at the end of the day is getting the most done I can for you, and that is what I do every day. And I will not be distracted from that job. We have a lot to do.”
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