Cuomo could be compelled to testify in sexual-harassment inquiry

By Luis Ferré-Sudirní

When a team of outside investigators begins to examine sex harassment allegations lodged against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, its scope may be far broader than first anticipated.

The team, which will be hired by Letitia James, the New York state attorney general, will have far-reaching subpoena powers to request troves of documents and compel witnesses, including the governor, to testify under oath.

The independent inquiry may also scrutinize not just the sexual harassment accusations made by two former aides last week, but potential claims from other women as well.

In the end, which is likely to be months from now, the investigators will be required to produce a final report, the results of which could be politically devastating for Cuomo.

“The end game is that a report that found him culpable would bring pressure to bear on him personally, on his regime, on the Legislature to act,” said Nina Pirrotti, a lawyer who specializes in employment law and sexual harassment cases. “But I don’t exactly know how it will play out.”

Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, is navigating one of the most precarious and uncertain periods of his more than 10 years in office, just months after he had emerged as a national leader early in the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor is facing a federal probe into his administration’s decision to withhold data on nursing home deaths, a scandal that has led to calls for impeachment and has spurred state legislators to seriously consider curbing the emergency powers they granted him at the beginning of the pandemic.

But the harassment accusations could be even more damaging for a governor who has prided himself on advancing protections for women in the workplace.

The first accusation came from Lindsey Boylan, who used to work for his administration.

Boylan published an essay Feb. 24 that detailed a series of unsettling encounters she said she had with Cuomo, including an instance when she said he gave her an unsolicited kiss on the lips.

Then, on Saturday, The New York Times published an article about Charlotte Bennett, 25, a former entry-level staffer in the governor’s office who accused him of asking invasive questions, including whether she was monogamous and had sex with older men. She said she interpreted the remarks as sexual advances.

Cuomo’s office denied Boylan’s allegations at the time. On Sunday, following Bennett’s account, Cuomo issued a statement in which he denied propositioning or touching anyone inappropriately, but apologized for workplace comments that he said “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”

On Monday, following public back-and-forth over who would conduct the investigation, James received the governor’s authorization to open an inquiry under a section of state law that allows her office to “inquire into matters concerning the public peace, public safety and public justice.”

The claims from both women are now at the center of that investigation, the contours of which are still materializing but could prod deeply into the inner workings of the governor’s office and how sexual misconduct allegations are handled there.

Cuomo’s office has indicated that the governor’s office would “voluntarily cooperate fully” and that it had instructed all state employees to do so as well.

Investigators will ultimately produce a public report, which is bound to include a summary and analysis of their findings, maybe even recommendations. Experts said the civil inquiry could look at whether Cuomo violated the state’s human rights laws and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a federal law that protects against harassment because of a person’s sex.

“These women do have the option, potentially, to bring claims against their employer, the state of New York, for Gov. Cuomo’s conduct,” Pirrotti said, adding that the facts in the report could help victims recover economic and emotional distress damages.

As investigators corroborate details, she said the inquiry could “widen and widen” to include other sexual harassment claims that might surface during the investigation. On Monday, a third woman, Anna Ruch, came forward and said that she was “confused and shocked and embarrassed” when Cuomo asked to kiss her at a wedding reception.

In a referral letter Monday to the attorney general, Beth Garvey, a special counsel and senior adviser to the governor, said the inquiry would broadly look into “allegations of and circumstances surrounding sexual harassment claims made against the governor.”

James, a Democrat, said her office would oversee “a rigorous and independent investigation” but would hire a law firm to spearhead it, a move that many saw as an attempt to avoid any appearance that politics would influence the investigation. The governor endorsed James’ run for attorney general in 2018, and she has been rumored as a potential candidate to challenge Cuomo in a primary next year, when he would be up for reelection.

James had not selected an independent law firm as of Monday.

Lawyers from the firm would be deputized and will have the power to subpoena witnesses, as well as any documents, records, papers and books relevant to the investigation. Failure to comply with a subpoena could result in a misdemeanor.

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