‘Completely Violated’: Women Describe Cuomo’s Groping and Intimidation

ALBANY (NY)
New York Times

August 3, 2021

By Matt Flegenheimer

[With a video report.]

The new account of a state trooper bolsters a meticulous new report on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s misdeeds — and how his inner circle allowed such conduct to fester.

The governor placed his finger on the back of the trooper’s neck, standing behind her in an elevator at his Manhattan office, tracing the path of her spine with a two-word narration: “Hey, you.”

Sometimes, he asked questions — Why didn’t she wear a dress? Why pursue marriage when “your sex drive goes down” afterward? Could he kiss her? — and sometimes, he made statements: He remarked that his ideal girlfriend could “handle pain.” He said that the trooper, in her late 20s, was “too old” for him. He directed her to say nothing of their conversations.

The trooper was perhaps most unsettled after an event on Long Island in 2019. As she held a door open for him, she felt the palm of his hand on her bellybutton, pressing toward her right hip, where she kept her gun. “I felt completely violated,” she later told investigators. “But, you know, I’m here to do a job.”

Doing a job at the behest of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was long known to be taxing and often demeaning work. But a 165-page report released on Tuesday by the state attorney general is at once the fullest accounting yet of his executive misdeeds and a meticulous rendering of how that conduct was permitted to fester in the first place.

To exist as a woman in Mr. Cuomo’s orbit, the report suggested, was to live “the dichotomy between fear and flirtation,” a space where the boss could toggle between intimate and intimidating and where his senior-most aides seemed to operate with a singular focus on the governor’s reputation and personal comfort.

In fact, the report says, as Mr. Cuomo sexually harassed women inside and outside his government, greater pains were taken to protect him from himself: The executive chamber declined to report harassment allegations from an executive assistant, Charlotte Bennett, to the appropriate state agency and moved instead to establish a practice preventing certain female staff members from being left alone with the governor.

The composition of his circle, in the report’s telling, was likewise intended to minimize exposure for Mr. Cuomo and accentuate a culture of fear around confronting him, with access granted chiefly to those with “a proven, personal loyalty.”

Those with Mr. Cuomo’s ear included state employees like Melissa DeRosa, his top aide, and outside advisers like his brother Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor, with no formal obligation to the state. The result, investigators wrote, was that “employees who are not part of this inner circle of loyalists would rightfully believe — and did believe — that any complaint or allegation about the governor would be handled by people whose overriding interest is in protecting the governor.”

So bleak were the options available to Mr. Cuomo’s victims, witness interviews showed, that even unwelcome sexualized attention could be seen as “a better alternative to the otherwise tense, stressful and ‘toxic’ experience in the executive chamber.”

A campaign of retaliation was hatched against Lindsey Boylan, the first former aide to publicly accuse Mr. Cuomo of sexual misconduct, whose confidential personnel files were disseminated to the news media. A proposed op-ed letter disparaging Ms. Boylan made the rounds among current and former aides, with the governor himself writing the first draft “by hand,” aides testified. (In his interview with investigators, Mr. Cuomo, who was eventually advised against having the op-ed published, likened the process to an apparent Lincolnian habit of drafting letters as a cathartic exercise but never sending them.)

More often, unbridled belligerence and belittling were “part of the deal” for anyone in the governor’s employ, one veteran of state government suggested in an email quoted by investigators.

“There are several orders of victims in this issue: first and foremost the women who experienced these things with him,” another senior staff member wrote to herself in March 2021, as the allegations against Mr. Cuomo mounted. “Second though, and unrecognized are the staff. We are almost uniformly good people who killed ourselves…to accomplish his agenda — for his political glory, and for the feeling that he would make decisions with public service as his driving goal. I feel cheated out of that.”

Mr. Cuomo on Tuesday proceeded with characteristic defiance and deflection, broadly denying wrongdoing, calling the review biased and politically motivated and raising a family member’s own experience with sexual violence.

“I understand these dynamics,” he said, accusing those attacking him of diminishing the plight of “legitimate sexual harassment victims.”

But at times in the report, the governor’s interview with investigators only serves to reinforce a sense, pervasive throughout the document, that he has constructed a workplace intended to shield him from accountability for his own behavior.

He claims an executive assistant who accused him of unwanted advances was “the initiator of the hugs.” He says it was Ms. Bennett who raised the topic of potential girlfriends with him. He insists he never meant to make anyone uncomfortable and didn’t know he had.

The investigators found his denials “contrived.” They had company.

“I’m disgusted that Andrew Cuomo — a man who understands subtle power dynamics and power plays better than almost anyone in the planet — is giving this loopy excuse of not knowing he made women feel uncomfortable,” the senior official wrote in that March 2021 message to herself, after the governor had spoken publicly about Ms. Bennett’s allegations for the first time. “Either he knew exactly what he was doing (likely) or he is so narcissistic that he thought all women wanted these kinds of questions (crazy excuse even to write it).”

Such was the mind-warp that often visited people in Mr. Cuomo’s world, a kind of inescapable psychological warfare — with him, with colleagues, with oneself — that permeated his office, as if the collective discomfort fueled him in a grueling job.

“On the one hand, he makes all this inappropriate and creepy behavior normal and like you should not complain,” Alyssa McGrath, an executive assistant, told investigators. “On the other hand, you see people get punished and screamed at if you do anything where you disagree with him or his top aides.”

Ana Liss, a former aide in the executive chamber, who felt she had been treated as “eye candy,” said she had come forward to describe what she considered minor transgressions because she believed a “tolerance for those micro flirtations” had created a permission structure for Mr. Cuomo to “act a certain way behind closed doors with women in more serious manners.”

Often enough, witnesses recounted, a sort of wink-wink aside accompanied the unwanted touching, an apparent attempt by the governor to enshrine the groping as shared mischief.

In May 2017, a woman working for an energy company, Virginia Limmiatis, encountered Mr. Cuomo on a rope line at a conservation event. She wore a shirt bearing her employer’s name. “When the governor reached Ms. Limmiatis, he ran two fingers across her chest, pressing down on each of the letters as he did so and reading out the name of the energy company as he went,” the report read.

The governor leaned in, close to her cheek, and said, “I’m going to say I see a spider on your shoulder,” investigators found. Then he brushed his hand “in the area between her shoulder and breasts.”

Around December 2018, just before posing for a picture with a male member of the protective detail and his wife at a holiday party, Mr. Cuomo peeled off the woman’s name-tag, just below her breast. The governor began to leave, the report said, before doubling back to hand the man the name-tag, saying something to the effect of, “You might want this — I could get in trouble.”

At times, Mr. Cuomo seemed to commingle an instinct for political survival with an expectation that those around him would look out for him, too.

He could do his own bidding, as in his aggressive flirtations with the female trooper — instructing her, “Don’t tell anyone about our conversations,” according to her account.

But almost without fail, the governor had reinforcements.

The trooper told investigators that she hoped her story would “validate these women” accusing a “vindictive” governor of misconduct. But she said she still fears retribution for speaking, even without being named publicly.

She recalled how a security detail commander had responded to hearing Mr. Cuomo ask why the trooper wasn’t wearing a dress as she drove them to an event.

After she left the vehicle, unnerved by the exchange, the trooper received a message from the commander, advising discretion.

“Stays in the truck,” it read.

It did, until it didn’t.

Matt Flegenheimer is a reporter covering national politics. He started at The Times in 2011 on the Metro desk covering transit, City Hall and campaigns. @mattfleg

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 4, 2021, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Groping and Fear of Retaliation: Inside Look at a ‘Toxic’ Culture.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/03/nyregion/cuomo-toxic-workplace.html