Embattled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday asked state Attorney General Letitia James to choose an investigator to probe sexual harassment allegations against him, bowing to criticism from both parties that his initial choice for the job was a political ally.
Mr. Cuomo also apologized in the burgeoning scandal, saying his female accusers may have “misinterpreted” his behavior.
“I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” the governor said. “To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
Ms. James, in turn, vowed to oversee a thorough and independent investigation.
Mr. Cuomo made his latest request for an investigation after Ms. James rejected an entreaty from the governor to jointly select an investigator with a top judge.
“The governor’s office wants a thorough and independent review that is above reproach and beyond political interference,” said Cuomo adviser Beth Garvey.
Ms. James said the governor’s referral had to grant subpoena power to her designees.
“This is not a responsibility we take lightly,” Ms. James said. “We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation.”
Ms. James pushed back earlier, saying she alone must be able to choose an investigator without input from the judge, a Cuomo appointee. She said state law “clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral.”
“The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted,” Ms. James said.
Mr. Cuomo’s office ultimately backed down and asked Ms. James alone to pick a “qualified private lawyer” to conduct an independent review.
“As necessary, other lawyers from the appointed lawyer’s firm shall be similarly designated to assist in the review,” Ms. Garvey said. “The lawyer shall report publicly their findings. The governor’s office will voluntarily cooperate fully.”
Ms. James said any referral from the governor had to be made solely to her office.
Under fire over the weekend after a second former female aide accused him of harassment, Mr. Cuomo initially tapped former federal Judge Barbara Jones to lead what he called an “independent” review of the allegations.
Democrats and Republicans alike mocked his choice as a potential whitewash. They noted that Ms. Jones works for the law firm of a former top Cuomo adviser, Steven Cohen.
“The accused CANNOT appoint the investigator. PERIOD,” tweeted Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Long Island Democrat. “The continued allegations are deeply disturbing and concerning. The behavior described has no place in the workplace. A truly independent investigation must begin immediately.”
The governor’s office said Ms. Jones has “a stellar record for qualifications and integrity,” but less than 24 hours after choosing her, Mr. Cuomo instead asked Ms. James and Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the state court of appeals, to jointly select “an independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation to conduct a thorough review” and issue a public report.
“The work product will be solely controlled by that independent lawyer personally selected by the Attorney General and chief judge,” Ms. Garvey said. “All members of the governor’s office will cooperate fully.”
Ms. James said she had deep respect for the judge but it was her responsibility as attorney general to carry out the task.
Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide to Mr. Cuomo, told The New York Times in a report published Saturday that the 63-year-old governor sexually harassed her last year before she resigned in November. She said he asked her, when they were alone together, whether she ever had sex with older men.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Ms. Bennett said. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”
Lindsey Boylan, another former Cuomo aide, renewed her own accusations last week that the governor kissed her without her consent in 2018 and made a series of other unwanted advances toward her.
After Ms. Bennett made the accusations, calls for the governor’s resignation mounted. Even New York Democrats are signaling that they have had enough of Mr. Cuomo, who is seeking a fourth term next year.
“You are a monster, and it is time for you to go — now,” state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, Bronx Democrat, told the governor.
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, also a Bronx Democrat, called the latest accusations “deeply disturbing and concerning. The behavior described has no place in the workplace.”
New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, a Democrat, said she believes Ms. Bennett and is “disgusted” by the accusations.
“Senior officials in the governor’s office were aware of his behavior. … What happened to these complaints? Why was no further action taken? How many other times has this happened?” Ms. Wiley said.
Mr. Cuomo, whose star among Democrats has plummeted with breathtaking speed, urged New Yorkers to withhold judgment about him until the review is completed and they “know the facts.” He initially said he would not comment further until the review had ended.
Mr. Cuomo has denied the accounts of both women. He said he wanted to “mentor” Ms. Bennett.
“I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported.”
Later, the governor allowed that he might have made people uncomfortable and gave a qualified apology.
“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,” Mr. Cuomo said.
He said people who are harassing Ms. Bennett about her decision to come forward should stop.
Ms. Boylan scoffed at the governor’s claim of mentoring young women.
“Andrew Cuomo wouldn’t understand the concept of mentorship if it punched him in the face,” she tweeted. “He grooms women to feel like they have no way out. That’s the training he does.”
She also said of the governor that “he does not get to choose his judge and jury. We do.”
The White House on Sunday said President Biden backs an independent probe but didn’t take issue with Mr. Cuomo’s choice of the investigator.
“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,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Ms. Psaki said Mr. Biden “has been consistent that he believes that every woman should be heard, should be treated with respect and with dignity. Charlotte should be treated with respect and dignity. So should Lindsey.”
Some of Mr. Cuomo’s Democratic allies in Albany distanced themselves from the investigation set up by the governor’s office. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said a “truly independent investigation is warranted.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Brooklyn Democrat and former federal prosecutor, said the “pattern of behavior requires a swift and immediate, independent investigation, the leader of which must be empowered to access all evidence.”
State Sen. James Skoufis, the Newburgh Democrat who heads the Committee on Investigations, said the accusations were “deeply disturbing” and called for “an independent, outside, expeditious investigation … completely independent of potential influence and politics.”
Mr. Skoufis was criticized for failing to issue subpoenas to Mr. Cuomo and his staff over the state’s nursing home scandal. The governor and his aide are accused of covering up deaths related to COVID-19 and Mr. Cuomo’s order for nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, also called for an independent probe, “not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General.”
The Sexual Harassment Working Group, a New York-based organization created by former legislative aides, said Mr. Cuomo’s choice of Ms. Jones to lead the probe is “no good.” The group cited a “questionable conflict of interest or at least bias with this judge.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who first called for Mr. Cuomo to resign in December when Ms. Boylan’s allegations arose, blasted Mr. Cuomo for appointing his own investigator.
“New Yorkers see right through this. Criminal sexual predators do NOT get to announce their own ‘review’ & appoint who will conduct it,” Ms. Stefanik said in a Twitter post. “This needs to be immediately renounced by every elected official in NY as yet another desperate Cuomo coverup.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, called the allegations against Mr. Cuomo “serious and deeply concerning.”
“As requested by Attorney General James, the matter should be referred to her office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power,” Ms. Gillibrand said.
Ms. Gillibrand and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, another New York Democrat, said last week that all women’s allegations of harassment deserve to be heard, but they avoided criticizing Mr. Cuomo directly.
New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, a Democrat, said in a milder statement that “anyone who has experienced sexual harassment in any situation should feel empowered to step forward and know they can share the truth of their experiences without fear or retaliation.”
“Albany must show they take all allegations seriously through action,” Mr. Yang said.
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