A kiss on the cheek, reaching under a blouse to grope a breast, asking questions about an employee’s marital status — these are a few of the accounts of sexual harassment that women testified they endured from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in an investigative report released Tuesday.
New York Attorney General Letitia James said an independent investigation found that Cuomo sexually harassed current and former state employees, created a hostile work environment, and violated several federal and state laws, although she added that "the matter is civil in nature and does not have any criminal consequences."
But the 168-page investigative report, which consulted 74,000 pieces of evidence to corroborate and substantiate the testimonies, detailed the “humiliating, uncomfortable, offensive, or inappropriate” impact Cuomo’s actions have had on the 11 women who filed complaints, nine of whom are former and current state employees. The investigation started in March after multiple women made public allegations of sexual harassment against the governor and his office asked for an independent investigation.
The women’s stories range from accounts of direct physical touch to psychological toil, fueled by an unchecked high-profile official in an extremely influential office where people felt little power to speak up. The report also contextualizes why the accusers may not have come forward, such as fear of retaliation or further abuse.
“I believe them, and I thank them for their bravery,” James told reporters.
Investigators found that Cuomo persistently engaged in inappropriate physical contact with the women who spoke out. One woman identified as Executive Assistant #1 told investigators the governor regularly hugged her, kissed her on the cheeks, and once on the lips. She also said she could feel his hands running up and down her back during the hugs and “tried to lean her lower back away from the Governor’s pelvic area” to avoid unwanted physical touch.
The woman said the governor’s physical interactions “escalated” to the point that he grabbed her butt while posing for a photo and, in another instance, reached under her blouse to grab her breast.
“I felt that he was definitely taking advantage of me,” Executive Assistant #1 told investigators. “The fact that he could tell I was nervous. He could tell that I wasn’t saying anything because he had gotten away with it before.”
Other women spoke to Cuomo’s physical aggression. One state trooper reported that “he ran the palm of his left hand across her stomach” as she held a door open for him at an event in 2019. Another state trooper witnessed the interaction, but the state trooper did not report the incident because she was new to Cuomo’s security detail and she had heard of officers being punished for petty issues that upset the governor, the report states.
Lindsey Boylan, a former employee of the Empire State Development Corporation who also worked as a special adviser to the governor, said Cuomo touched her on the waist, legs, and back throughout her tenure.
“[I]t was deeply humiliating on some level. . . . I was really senior and I had worked my whole life to get to a point where I would be taken seriously and I wasn’t being taken seriously and I worked so hard to be some little doll for the Governor of New York, and that was deeply humiliating,” Boylan said in the report.
Cuomo also kissed her on the cheeks and once on the lips, Boylan said.
Ana Liss, who worked in the executive office from 2013 to 2015, also testified to frequent cheek-kissing, touching hands, and feeling the governor reach around her waist.
“I thought it was weird but typical of him . . . [F]or whatever reason in his office the rules were different,” Liss said. “It was just, you should view it as a compliment if the Governor finds you aesthetically pleasing enough . . . It was like we were in a different decade.”
At a wedding party in 2019, Anna Ruch told investigators Cuomo shook her hand and then moved his to her bare back where her dress had a cutout. After removing the governor’s hand from her back, Ruch said he called her “aggressive,” cupped her face in his hands, and asked to kiss her.
Women testified that beyond overt physical contact, Cuomo made suggestive comments that further promoted a mentally disturbing and unsafe environment.
Former aide Charlotte Bennett came forward with sexual harassment allegations in March. The report details that in a series of conversations in 2020, Cuomo made comments to Bennett about dating younger women or her dating older men (she was 25 at the time), telling her he was “lonely” during the pandemic and “wanted to be touched.” He also allegedly suggested she get a tattoo on her butt.
And, in perhaps the most disturbing of instances Bennett shared, the “Governor pointed at her and repeated, ‘[Y]ou were raped, you were raped, you were raped and abused and assaulted’” when providing so-called feedback for a speech she was giving at her alma mater about sexual assault. Bennett had previously shared her sexual assault experience with Cuomo, but the interaction distressed her so much she reported it to the chief of staff and was moved into a new position. The executive chamber never completed a formal investigation into Bennett’s complaint but did institute its own rule that women should not be left alone with the governor.
“I was scared and I was uncomfortable . . . . But I was really . . . focused almost just on the question he was asking me, because . . . otherwise I would have been like really freaking out,” Bennett told investigators.
In other instances, the governor allegedly referred to women with nicknames like “Daisy Duke,” “bun,” “sponge,” or “mingle mamas”; openly spoke about his physical and sexual criteria for an ideal girlfriend; admitted to a “crush” on one woman; addressed other women as “sweetheart” or “darling”; and made a sexualized joke to a state-employed doctor administering a COVID-19 test on him.
The attorney general’s assessment also speaks to the “justified” feeling of fear the women experienced, and how that discouraged them from officially reporting their experiences. The women share a quality of “proven, personal loyalty” to Cuomo, which served to form a protective bubble around him and allow his behavior to flourish unchecked, the report states.
When Boylan came forward with her account, key players in Cuomo’s office blindly engaged in “retaliatory actions,” including threatening to give previously confidential information to the press and preparing an op-ed to take her down, investigators found.
“I knew what just went on, I knew and he knew too that that was wrong,” Executive Assistant #1 said. “Who am I going to tell? My supervisor was Stephanie Benton . . . the Governor’s right-hand person and if I told her I was going to be asked to go somewhere else or transferred to [another] agency. And the sad part of this whole thing, I actually like my job. I was proud to work, especially during this pandemic.”
When Bennett said she “did not want to make waves” when taking her complaint to the chief of staff, the executive office took this as an opportunity to pass up a formal investigation, the report states.
“I was scared even to see him in the hallway, which was a rare occurrence anyway. I was honestly—I was just terrified,” Bennett said of the period after she raised her complaint. “I feel like I sat next to senior staff as they worked and I have no concept of how far they’d go to protect him and didn’t want to find out.”
Meanwhile, Cuomo strategically placed himself as an elected official on the right side of the #MeToo movement, signing laws on workplace sexual harassment and implementing a “zero tolerance” policy.
In response to the report, Cuomo’s attorney, Rita Galvin, accused investigators of omitting evidence and pointed out that until Boylan spoke out in December 2020, “no one has ever advanced a charge of sexual harassment against the Governor.”
“The investigators have directed an utterly biased investigation and willfully ignored evidence inconsistent with the narrative they have sought to weave from the outset,” she said in a statement. Cuomo also defended himself in a video message, saying he has never inappropriately touched anyone or made inappropriate sexual advances.
“I've lived all my entire adult life in public view,” he said. “That is just not who I am. That is not who I have ever been."
But James said the report pulls the curtain back on the toxic and abusive culture that dominated the governor’s office and promoted a “climate of fear.” And now, light is being shed on the environment through the stories of the 11 women.
“None of this would have been illuminated if not for the heroic women who came forward,” she said.