Governor says comments possibly ‘misinterpreted’ - calls to resign
A collective of former New York state legislative employees on Monday denounced Andrew Cuomo’s apology for his past behavior, after the governor was accused of sexually harassing two women, and called for his removal or resignation. Members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group also said they expected more allegations to follow – and accused Cuomo of “gaslighting” his accusers.
New York attorney general Letitia James, meanwhile, announced the first step in mounting an external investigation of the governor’s behavior.
Cuomo, the son of a former governor and himself a former US housing secretary, is one of America’s most prominent governors. On Sunday he acknowledged for the first time that some of his behavior towards women “may have been insensitive or too personal”. He also said he would cooperate with an investigation led by the state attorney general.
“I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” said the Democrat, amid growing criticism from his own party.
“To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
But Rita Pasarell, a member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group of former state workers who have experienced, witnessed or reported sexual harassment by New York legislators, said Cuomo’s comments did not constitute an apology and accused him of “gaslighting” – behavior meant to disorientate and undermine those making allegations against him.
Pasarell: “There is nothing in there where he acknowledges that his behavior was wrong, he’s not even apologizing for his behavior. He’s only apologizing for the victims’ feelings … He’s basically saying the women got it wrong and they misunderstood what he was doing, which is totally insulting.”
She added: “What is also really troubling to me about his statement is that he’s not taking any accountability, we have no reason to think he’s not going to repeat this behavior again. Which is to say the current staff are unprotected, he is not fit to serve because he is not showing an understanding that he needs to commit to not doing these things again.”
Pasarell called for Cuomo’s removal or resignation and said she believed the two women’s allegations “were just some examples of many, many instances that we have yet to hear of and I think we will hear of more”.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City on Monday also criticized Cuomo’s statement. “He just clearly was letting himself off the hook for something that, for the women involved, sounded pretty terrifying.”
Cuomo is accused of asking former aide Charlotte Bennett about her sex life, including whether she had ever had sex with older men, and making comments that she interpreted as assessing her interest in an affair.
Bennett made the allegations days after Lindsey Boylan, another former aide, gave further details of allegations initially made in December. She claims Cuomo made comments about her appearance and subjected her to an unwanted kiss.
Cuomo, 63, said he wanted to be a mentor to 25-year-old Bennett. He has denied Boylan’s allegations.
At first Cuomo suggested the retired federal judge Barbara Jones should review his behavior. He later proposed that James, the state attorney general, and chief appeals court judge, Janet DiFiore, appoint a lawyer to produce a report. Under mounting pressure, he agreed to demands for an inquiry led by James.
On Monday, James said she had received a formal referral that would enable her to employ an outside law firm to investigate.
“Today,” she said in a statement, “the executive chamber transmitted a referral letter to our office, providing us the authority to move forward with an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment claims made against Governor Cuomo.
“This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously. As the letter states, at the close of the review, the findings will be disclosed in a public report.”
On Sunday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Joe Biden supported an independent review that “should move forward as quickly as possible”.
The allegations against Cuomo, who at the height of the coronavirus pandemic was hailed as a national leader, follow a separate scandal in which his administration was forced to revise its count of nursing home deaths after it was revealed they were severely undercounted.
The Democratic assemblyman Ron Kim, who claims Cuomo threatened to “destroy” him over that scandal, which a Cuomo adviser has denied, told the Guardian he believed claims of sexual harassment were part of a “pattern of abusive behavior and him [Cuomo] abusing power”.
He said: “I believe the women, Charlotte, Lindsey and other former staffers and journalists who are coming out almost every other day with these stories of his abusive behavior. Now it’s up to the lawmakers and other authorities to hold [Cuomo] accountable.”
Kim called on Cuomo to “remove himself from office”, adding: “It’s very clear that he is unfit to lead our state at this point. I think many of us are urging him to step down and we can pursue a separate investigation while he is no longer in a position of power.”
On Sunday, the Republican state senate minority leader, Robert Ortt, called on Cuomo to resign. The two New York US senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are among Democrats who have demanded an independent investigation.
A state senator, Alessandra Biaggi, has called on Cuomo to resign, tweeting: “It is time for you to go. Now.”
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