New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced mounting pressure Tuesday (US time) to resign, including from US President Joe Biden and other onetime Democratic allies, after an investigation found he sexually harassed nearly a dozen women and worked to retaliate against one of his accusers.
"I think he should resign," Biden told reporters Tuesday, echoing the sentiments of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York's US Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, all Democrats.
The governor remained defiant, saying in a taped response to the findings that "the facts are much different than what has been portrayed" and that he "never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances".
The nearly five-month investigation, led by two outside lawyers, concluded that 11 women — in and out of state government — who said that Cuomo had touched them inappropriately, commented on their appearance or made suggestive comments about their sex lives were telling the truth.
Those accusers included an aide who said Cuomo groped her breast at the governor's mansion and a state trooper on his security detail, who said he ran his hand or fingers across her stomach and her back.
Anne Clark, who led the probe with former U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, said the allegations were corroborated to varying degrees, including by other witnesses and contemporaneous text messages.
"These interviews and pieces of evidence revealed a deeply disturbing yet clear picture: Gov. Cuomo sexually harassed current and former state employees in violation of federal and state laws," New York Attorney General Letitia James said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Many of the women said they feared retaliation if they reported the governor's behaviour, investigators said. On at least one occasion, the probe found, Cuomo's staff took action "intended to discredit and disparage" an accuser — Lindsey Boylan, the first former employee to publicly accuse him of wrongdoing — including leaking confidential personnel files and drafting a letter attacking her credibility.
The investigation's findings, detailed in a 165-page public report, turn up the pressure on the 63-year-old governor, who just a year ago was widely hailed for his steady leadership during the darkest days of the COVID-19 crisis, even writing a book about it.
Since then, he's seen his standing crumble with a drumbeat of harassment allegations, questions in a separate, ongoing inquiry into whether state resources went into writing the book, and the discovery that his administration concealed the true number of nursing home deaths during the outbreak.
The revelations, most of which were initially made public last winter, led to a chorus of calls for Cuomo's resignation from many top elected Democrats in New York. Schumer and Gillibrand said the report only reinforces the call for his resignation they first made last March.
"No elected official is above the law. The people of New York deserve better leadership in the governor's office. We continue to believe that the Governor should resign," they said in a joint statement.
While James concluded the investigation without referring the case to prosecutors for possible criminal charges, local authorities could use its evidence and findings to mount their own cases. Albany District Attorney David Soares said he would request materials from James' office and welcomed victims to contact his office.
The investigation's findings are also expected to play an important role in an ongoing state Assembly inquiry into whether there are grounds to impeach Cuomo, who has been raising money for a potential fourth term. The Assembly hired its own legal team to investigate myriad allegations regarding harassment, his book, nursing homes and special access to Covid-19 testing.
Several Cuomo accusers demanded swifter action, calling on the governor to leave office immediately. Some Democratic and Republican state lawmakers joined them, along with former Cuomo allies like county executives and leaders of left-leaning political groups.
Lt. Gov Kathy Hochul, who would succeed Cuomo if he is removed or resigns, called the behavior detailed in the report "repulsive and unlawful behaviour".
In his taped response, Cuomo apologised to two accusers: Charlotte Bennett, who said the governor asked if she was open to sex with an older man after she confided in him that she had been a victim of sexual assault, and a woman he kissed at a wedding — an incident reported in a front-page story in the New York Times. Cuomo said he was hiring an expert to reform sexual harassment training for state employees, including the governor.
But he denied other allegations as fabricated and lashed out at the investigative process, saying it was rife with "politics and bias." He explained that he's been physically embracing people his whole life, that his mother and father — former Gov. Mario Cuomo — had done the same and that the gesture was meant to "convey warmth."
Cuomo's lawyer issued a written rebuttal to the investigation's findings, arguing in most cases that serious allegations, like the alleged groping, didn't happen, or that his actions were misconstrued.
"For those who are using this moment to score political points or seek publicity or personal gain. I say they actually discredit the legitimate sexual harassment victims that the law was designed to protect," Cuomo said.
Bennett called the governor's apology to her "meaningless".
"If he were sorry, he would step down. That's how accountability works," she told the Associated Press. "I don't believe he will resign. I think it's the speaker's job now to begin impeachment proceedings."
The report detailed, for the first time, the allegations that Cuomo sexually harassed the state trooper. It said that in addition to touching the trooper, Cuomo kissed her on the cheek, asked for her help in finding a girlfriend and asked why she didn't wear a dress.
The report also included an allegation from a woman who worked for an energy company who said Cuomo touched her chest at an event. The woman said Cuomo ran his fingers across the lettering on her shirt, reading the name of her company aloud. Then he leaned in and said: "I'm going to say I see a spider on your shoulder," and brushed his hand in between her shoulder and breasts, the report said.
"These brave women stepped forward to speak truth to power and, in doing so, they expressed faith in the belief that although the governor may be powerful, the truth is even more so," Kim said at the press conference.
Cuomo faced multiple allegations last winter, starting with Boylan, who said Cuomo kissed her on the lips after a meeting in his office and "would go out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs".
After Boylan went public, Cuomo's staff released personnel memos to the media revealing that she left the administration after being confronted about complaints she belittled and yelled at her staff. Boylan has said the leak was "an effort to smear me".
In an 11-hour interview with investigators last month, Cuomo admitted to certain behaviour while denying other allegations, investigators said. For example, Clark said, he conceded asking Bennett whether she had been involved with older men and said he may have kissed the state trooper at an event but denied touching her.
Asked about an allegation that he grabbed a woman's breast at the executive mansion, according to the report, Cuomo responded: "I would have to lose my mind to do such a thing" to a woman he hardly knew, with multiple staff members around.
The probe, which involved interviews with 179 people including the governor himself, also found that Cuomo's administration was a hostile work environment "rife with fear and intimidation".
Cuomo always denied inappropriate touching, but he initially said he was sorry if his behavior with women was "misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation". He got more combative in recent months, saying he did nothing wrong.
He has also questioned the neutrality of the lawyers leading the probe. Kim was involved in previous investigations of corruption by people in Cuomo's administration.
New York state regulations say sexual harassment includes unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature — from unwanted flirtation to sexual jokes — that creates an offensive work environment, regardless of a perpetrator's intent.
Cuomo championed a landmark 2019 state law that made it easier for sexual harassment victims to prove their case in court. Alleged victims no longer have to meet the high bar of proving sexual harassment is "severe and pervasive".