Amid massive pressure from state and federal elected officials, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office announced on Sunday night it would refer allegations of sexual harassment leveled against the governor to state Attorney General Letitia James, less than 24 hours after initially proposing Cuomo’s own appointee for the role.
James, in turn, is expected to appoint an independent counsel to review the allegations made by two former aides to the governor in the last several days.
In a separate statement, Cuomo acknowledged he sometimes makes "playful" banter in the workplace and apologized for making anyone in his office feel uncomfortable.
"I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended," Cuomo said. "I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that."
The developments capped an extraordinary weekend in New York politics amid a growing crisis for Cuomo, who is now in his third term, and nearly a year after he become a national figure for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuomo on Saturday was accused of sexual harassment by Charlotte Bennett, who told The New York Times in a story posted Saturday that the governor made inappropriate comments to her that led her to believe she was being propositioned. In his own statement, Cuomo denied ever touching someone inappropriately.
"To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to," Cuomo said.
The allegations from Bennett came just four days after Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official, detailed sexual harassment claims about Cuomo, including that he gave her an unsolicited kiss in his office. Cuomo has denied the allegations of Boylan, a candidate for Manhattan Borough President.
Along with claims Cuomo had threatened Assemblyman Ron Kim in a phone call surrounding a separate controversy over his handling of nursing homes in the pandemic, the last several weeks have cast a different light on a governor who has been hailed nationally for his public briefings over the last year.
Cuomo's statement on Sunday evening acknowledged he sometimes tries to make jokes in an attempt to lighten the mood.
"At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. I do it in public and in private," Cuomo said. "You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business."
Earlier in the weekend, Cuomo's office announced that Barbara Jones, a former federal judge, would lead a review of the allegations. But Jones' appointment was met with nearly instant rejection from state lawmakers, who questioned whether Cuomo should be picking his investigator. Jones had worked at the same law firm as Steve Cohen, a longtime advisor and friend to the governor.
In an attempt at a compromise, Cuomo's office on Sunday morning proposed having the State Attorney General and state Court of Appeals Judge Janet DiFiore jointly appoint the lead investigator. That proposal, too, was rejected. DiFiore is a Cuomo appointee to the court, and their joint selection would have lacked subpoena power.
As State Attorney General, Cuomo had been granted subpoena power to investigate the administrations of his immediate predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.
Beth Garvey, the Cuomo administration's counsel, said the governor's office will cooperate fully with the investigation.
"The Governor's office wants a thorough and independent review that is above reproach and beyond political interference," Garvey said. "Therefore, the Governor's office has asked Attorney General Tish James to select a qualified private lawyer to do an independent review of allegations of sexual harassment. The independent lawyer will be legally designated as a Special Independent Deputy Attorney General and granted all powers provided under Section 63(8) of the Executive Law."
This is the referral power James had sought for the last day after she turned back calls for the joint approval.
"The state’s Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral. While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task, per Executive Law. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted,’’ James said.
Other prominent figures have called for independent investigations, including White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, progressive New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
"President Biden has been consistent that he believes that every woman should be heard, should be treated with respect, and with dignity," Psaki told CNN's Dana Bash on Sunday. "Charlotte should be treated with respect and dignity, so should Lindsey, and there should be an independent review looking into these allegations, and that's certainly something he supports and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible."
"[Biden] believes that every woman should be treated with dignity and respect. They should be able to tell their story. There should be an independent review of these allegations, they're serious," Psaki added. "It was hard to read that story as a woman."
Both of New York's members of the U.S. Senate have also weighed in on the allegations, saying an independent and transparent investigation must be held.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement on Sunday morning calling on the state legislature to revoke the governor’s emergency powers, and for two independent investigations to be launched: one looking into coronavirus nursing homes deaths, and the other into personal misconduct allegations.
"New Yorkers have seen detailed, documented accounts of sexual harassment, multiple instances of intimidation, and the admitted withholding of information on the deaths of over 15,000 people," said de Blasio in the statement.
Some lawmakers, including State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat, and Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican, have gone as far as to call on Cuomo to resign.