Governor Cuomo relied on a shrinking cadre of trusted advisers to guide strategy over sexual harassment allegations and to hit back at the women who accused him.
The governor's inner circle was in a frenzy: A former state employee had just publicly accused Andrew Cuomo of a years long sexual harassment campaign against her.
The group huddled in the New York state Capitol office of Melissa DeRosa, the governor's top aide, and launched an effort to discredit the woman, Lindsey Boylan, collecting a box of personnel files filled with sensitive information that they thought would undermine her credibility.
Before they could leak the files to reporters, some names had to be removed. One of the governor's senior advisers hunted for Wite-Out with the help of an executive assistant — a woman who would later accuse Cuomo of groping her breast in the Executive Mansion.
That episode in December was just one of many described in a damaging report from the New York state attorney general this week, which not only found that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, but that a cadre of his top aides and associates engaged in unlawful retaliation against one of the women — retaliation that frightened others into maintaining their silence.
The report laid bare how Cuomo had come to rely on a small band of advisers — not just his closest government aides, but also a handful of outside loyalists, even consulting leaders of groups dedicated to supporting gay rights and victims of sexual harassment. Many of those allies helped fine-tune his public response to the allegations and, in the most troubling instance, helped to spearhead a campaign to stymie them.
Cuomo also sought counsel from former administration officials like Alphonso David, now the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ political lobbying organization in the country; Tina Tchen, who heads Time's Up, a group that supports victims of sexual harassment; Roberta A. Kaplan, who runs its Legal Defense Fund; and the governor's brother, Chris Cuomo.
David and Kaplan both reviewed a draft of a disparaging op-ed letter that was aimed at assailing Boylan's character. The letter was never published, but the disclosure of David's involvement has led to calls for his resignation from the Human Rights Campaign.
The willingness of Kaplan and Tchen to work with Cuomo, according to DeRosa's account to investigators, has also drawn sharp criticism. (Kaplan and Tchen have both said they would not have approved an attack on an accuser.)
The governor, who has not left Albany since the report's release, has continued to lean on his closest aides and his team of lawyers, as he charts a strategy for political survival. Cuomo spent Wednesday at the Executive Mansion discussing with advisers whether to hold another news conference to further respond to the allegations.
In the governor's decade long tenure, he has navigated Albany's byzantine ways and steered the state's bureaucracy using brute political force and heavy-handed tactics of bullying and intimidation. He has alienated many people along the way, narrowing his circle of confidants.
Cuomo's special counsel, Judith Mogul, who handled complaints from some of the governor's accusers, resigned this week. On Wednesday, he lost support from key labor leaders and one of his staunchest allies, Jay Jacobs, chair of the state's Democratic Party.
Others had abandoned him earlier this year, as additional women accused the governor of sexual misconduct, and his tone and strategy shifted from apologetic to increasingly defiant. The need for some to distance themselves became more urgent as they realized they would eventually be interviewed in the state attorney general's investigation, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Josh Vlasto, the governor's former chief of staff, told investigators that Cuomo had asked him earlier this year to spearhead the "politics and press operation" of the governor's overlapping crises. But Vlasto, who was involved in the deliberations over releasing Boylan's file, testified that he declined in part because he disagreed with the negative "style" the governor and his advisers had adopted in responding to the allegations.
Most of the governor's top aides appeared to be more comfortable with that approach. Indeed, the report found that Cuomo's inner circle helped enable the governor's behavior, fostering a toxic workplace and a culture of retaliation where workers feared retribution for making minor mistakes, seeming disloyal or upsetting Cuomo.
The fear of retaliation also had a chilling effect: Many of the women who have now accused Cuomo said it was one of the underlying reasons that they did not immediately report their sexual harassment.
When Boylan first accused Cuomo of sexual harassment in a post on Twitter in December — she called him "one of the biggest abusers of all time" — the governor's aides leaked her personnel records and drafted the letter that assailed her character.
When an administration staffer, identified in the report only as Kaitlin, voiced her support for Boylan on Twitter, Cuomo's top aides and outside loyalists quickly mobilised to seek out more information about whether Kaitlin was working for Boylan or had allegations against Cuomo, the report said.
A former staff member said she was "pressured" by DeRosa to call Kaitlin out of the blue and record the phone conversation, which Kaitlin described to investigators as "a fishing expedition on behalf of the executive chamber."
Also involved in the discussions about the call and its recording, which senior staff testified was later destroyed, were Linda Lacewell, the superintendent of the state's Department of Financial Services, as well as two outside advisers: Steven M. Cohen, a longtime friend of the governor who once served as his top aide, and David, who previously served as counsel to the governor, the report said.
Indeed, the report outlined how Cuomo's staff often relied on former staffers who had "a proven, personal loyalty to the governor." As Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, described the inner circle and its credo to investigators: "When you feel like you're in a battle, you turn to those you trust."
Investigators were especially alarmed that those former aides were sometimes trusted with privileged information and helped make governmental decisions.
Releasing Boylan's confidential personnel files to reporters — a move that aides insisted was aimed at disputing her account of how she left her job in the Cuomo administration — was only the first step. The governor and his aides then drafted the letter attacking her credibility, suggesting that she treated her own subordinates poorly.
"Standing by silently is not an option," a draft of the letter about Boylan said. "To do otherwise risks delegitimising the rights of survivors of workplace abuse."
At one point, a draft of the letter — which was to be signed by several current and former administration officials — even sought to turn accusations back on Boylan, saying that she had called the governor "handsome" and told staff she "loved" him. At one point, an adviser suggested using the letter to imply that Boylan, a progressive Democrat, was aligned with President Donald Trump, according to emails obtained by The New York Times.
The report said David, who worked for Cuomo for eight years until 2019, was sent the letter but ultimately decided not to sign it because he didn't know if some of the statements were true, saying he would help get other former staffers to sign it instead.
David, whom DeRosa had sought out in December, said in a statement that he was not aware at the time of the full extent of the allegations against the governor, most of which surfaced publicly months later.
"I was never aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct, and no one ever reported them to me, as the report verifies," said David. He has called on Cuomo to resign, saying the report made him "sick to my stomach."
According to DeRosa's testimony to investigators, Kaplan, who had worked with Cuomo's office before, also reviewed the letter along with Tchen, once the chief of staff for Michelle Obama, the former first lady. DeRosa said that the two women had suggested that "without the statements about Ms. Boylan's interactions with male colleagues, the letter was fine."
In a statement, Kaplan said, "We were among a group of people asked for thoughts on a public response to Ms. Boylan's allegations when they first came out in December 2020. While it turns out the response was never published, I made it very clear that any response should never shame an accuser. Given the revelations in the NYAG's report, I support and agree with Time's Up that Governor Cuomo should resign."
"It appears that we're being used as cover," Tchen said in an interview Thursday, noting that she had not been contacted by the attorney general's investigators. "We certainly did not greenlight any sort of attack on survivors. We would never do that."
Though the letter was never published, the attorney general's report said a reporter saw a draft, and parts of it were communicated to another reporter. (The Times obtained draft copies of the letter and emails discussing it after the attorney general's report was released.)
On Thursday afternoon, the governor's office released a legal analysis arguing that the actions taken against Boylan did not constitute retaliation. Lawyers for Cuomo argued that the release of information about Boylan, as well as the drafting of the unsent letter, did not violate the law, in part because it did not do any "actual injury or harm" to her. The lawyers argued that the governor's advisers were justified in their response to Boylan's accusations, and that their actions were reasonable and measured.
In addition, Sean Hecker, DeRosa's lawyer, said in a statement that she "consulted with and relied upon advice of experienced counsel" when deciding whether personnel records "could be provided to the public."
In response, a spokesperson for the attorney general's office, Fabien Levy, said, "The report speaks for itself and we stand by it."
DeRosa told investigators she notified Cuomo about the personnel files after they were leaked in order to protect the governor from criticism. But other staffers said they assumed the governor — known as a hands-on manager, especially when it comes to press strategy — had approved the disclosure.
"We were shocked at the scope of the conspiracy to discredit Lindsey," said Jill Basinger, a lawyer for Boylan who has said that Boylan intends to sue the governor and his advisers for their conduct.
"Time's Up shouldn't be friendly to him. The Campaign for Human Rights shouldn't be friendly to him," Basinger said.
Some in Cuomo's inner circle thought the letter would backfire. In an email to DeRosa, Annabel Walsh, who was Cuomo's scheduling director, gave a list of reasons not to make it public. The first was simply "Don't do this." Dani Lever, the governor's former press secretary, said that the letter would be "victim shaming."
There was also some understanding among Cuomo's advisers that the letter could be seen as retaliatory, according to DeRosa's testimony. It was certainly seen that way by other potential accusers, including the executive assistant who said Cuomo reached into her blouse and groped her breast.
"I would be in the room when they were actively trying to discredit her," the executive assistant said of the efforts against Boylan. "They were actively trying to portray a different story of it. Trying to make her seem like she was crazy."
Seeing that, she told investigators, had dissuaded her from reporting what the governor had done to her. She told them she was "terrified" about reporting the interaction and potentially losing her job, saying, "I was going to take this to the grave."
"He definitely knew what he was doing was inappropriate," she told investigators. "So any time that he would do something to me, he knew that at the end of the day if I told anyone, nothing was going to happen to him. If anyone, it was going to happen to me."
She was not the only woman in the governor's office who was afraid of reprisal.
Charlotte Bennett, a former aide to Cuomo who accused the governor of making sexual overtures by asking whether she had sex with older men and whether she was monogamous, did not pursue an investigation when she reported the interactions to her supervisor last year, the report said, "out of fear of the governor and retaliation."
"I didn't think any person I had talked to at any point, as nice as they were, were going to protect me from anything at all at any point," Bennett, 26, told investigators. "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."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Jonah E. Bromwich
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