An aide who accused New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of groping her said in her first televised interview that she was initially afraid to identify herself because she worried the governor's "enablers" would destroy her if she spoke up.
Brittany Commisso, an executive assistant on Cuomo's staff, detailed her interactions with the Democrat in a joint interview with CBS and The Times Union of Albany that was broadcast as a key legislative committee met to discuss possible impeachment hearings.
Commisso has spoken out before, first in an anonymous interview with the Times Union last winter, and then as one of 11 women who said they were sexually harassed by Cuomo whose allegations were detailed in a report by the state attorney general's office last week. She was also the first woman to file a criminal complaint against Cuomo, giving a report to the county sheriff Thursday.
But until now, the public hasn't heard her tell her own story.
"I was afraid that if I had to come forward and revealed my name, that the governor and his enablers, I like to call them, would viciously attack me, would smear my name, as I had seen and heard them do before to people," said Commisso, now 32.
She said she also wanted to protect her daughter, but now feels speaking out shows her that "she has a voice".
"I never want her to be afraid to speak," Commisso said. "I never want her to be afraid of any person in power, a man or a woman."
The interview aired as Cuomo faces another day under fire.
Scores of Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have urged Cuomo to leave office.
About two-thirds of state Assembly members have said they favour an impeachment trial if he refuses to resign, according to an Associated Press count. Only a simple majority vote is needed to begin an impeachment trial.
The Assembly's judiciary committee met in executive session, behind closed doors, Monday to discuss how to wrap up an ongoing probe of Cuomo's conduct with women, and of other matters, including the use of staff to help with his $5 million book deal and his administration's decision to withhold full statistics on Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes from the public.
"Our investigation remains confidential, as it should be, and at the appropriate time and as early as later this month we will discuss the evidence publicly in an open and transparent manner," said committee chair Charles Lavine, a Long Island Democrat.
He promised that the committee was committed to protecting any witnesses from retaliation and giving Cuomo a chance to defend himself.
"The governor has said he wants to be treated fairly like anyone else in this country and he will be," Lavine said.
Cuomo will be going into the fight without his former top aide, Melissa DeRosa, who resigned late Sunday, saying the past two years had been "emotionally and mentally trying".
The report made public by state Attorney General Letitia James said DeRosa played a lead role in trying to protect Cuomo from harassment claims.
Among other things, it said she was involved in giving reporters personnel memos about Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to accuse him publicly of harassment. The records described Boylan's exit from the administration amid allegations that she'd mistreated her own staff.
In her interview on CBS, Commisso said the attention that Cuomo gave her was not a normal friendliness, as the governor has characterised it.
"Maybe to him, he thought this was normal. But to me and the other women that he did this to, it was not normal. It was not welcomed and it was certainly not consensual."
She said he groped her for the first time on December 31, 2019, when the governor suggested the two take a selfie together.
"He was to my left. I was on the right. With my right hand, I took the selfie. I then felt while taking the selfie, his hand go down my back onto my butt, and he started rubbing it. Not sliding it. Not, you know, quickly brushing over it — rubbing my butt."
Commisso, who began working in the governor's office in 2017, said this made her so nervous that her hands began to shake, making it difficult for her to even take the picture.
"I was embarrassed."
Commisso said Cuomo groped her a second time at the governor's mansion in November 2020.
After shutting the door, "He came back to me and that's when he put his hand up my blouse and cupped my breast over my bra," she said. "I exactly remember looking down, seeing his hand, which is a large hand, thinking to myself, 'Oh, my God. This is happening'."
Cuomo has repeatedly denied that the episode took place.
In an interview with the attorney general's investigators, he said, "I would have to lose my mind to do such a thing" to a woman he hardly knew, with multiple staff members around.
The Associated Press does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual misconduct unless they decide to speak out publicly, as Commisso has done.
Cuomo's lawyers have attacked the attorney general's investigation as biased in favor of his female accusers.
Advisers close to Cuomo don't expect him to give up, even as his circle of allies willing to speak up for him in public shrinks. But even once-loyal Democratic allies say they don't see him surviving.
"Just politically, this is the Titanic. It's just not going to float again," said state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs.
Cuomo's closest supporters now may be members of his family, including his brother and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. His brother-in-law, fashion designer Kenneth Cole, has taken to social media in recent days to defend Cuomo's "exemplary service".
"I'm praying for everyone involved," Cuomo's ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, said in a statement to the Associated Press, declining further comment.
At least five district attorneys have asked for materials from the attorney general's inquiry to see if any of the allegations could result in criminal charges. Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said Saturday that Cuomo could face misdemeanor charges if investigators substantiate Commisso's complaint. - AP