How Andrew Cuomo’s support melted away under a scalding report

Governor Andrew Cuomo liked a particular state trooper he encountered at an event in November 2017. Within weeks she was part of his personal security detail.

The young woman, who was hired despite lacking the requisite three years of experience, found the governor flirtatious and a bit creepy, and it grew worse over time.

Once, riding in an elevator, the governor placed his finger on her neck and ran it down her back. On another occasion he kissed her, and another time he ran his palm across her stomach, pressing it into her, when she held a door for him.

“I felt completely violated,” she said. “But, you know, I’m here to do a job.”

The account was part of a devastating 168-page report released by New York attorney-general Letitia James after a five-month investigation detailing harassment claims against Cuomo from current and former state employees.

Since a first accuser went public in February, the New York governor has defied political gravity by holding on to his job, even when others thought he was finished.

Cuomo rebutted James’s report, insisting once again that he had never touched anyone inappropriately and then shoving blame in all directions for his predicament — at the New York Times, his political rivals, a hyper-partisan political era.

The Democratic governor had become a national celebrity for his decisive leadership in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when President Donald Trump seemed intent on minimising the crisis.

But within hours of the report’s release, Cuomo’s political support was collapsing. New York’s two US senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, renewed their calls for his resignation. President Joseph Biden concurred.

Perhaps more significantly, influential black politicians in New York, whom Cuomo had clung to as the scandal intensified — including Carl Heastie, the speaker of the state Assembly, and Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the Brooklyn representative — abandoned him. 

“It is abundantly clear to me that the governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office,” said Heastie, who had been seen as Cuomo’s last wall of defence against impeachment.

Labour unions, which benefited from Cuomo’s building plans, were also buckling. Business leaders, long enamoured of the governor, could not stand up for him because of the nature of the offences and the need to face their own employees, one political strategist explained. 

“I think it’s checkmate,” the strategist said. “I don’t see a path for him.”

What scattered so many friends and allies was the weight and meticulousness of James’s report, which substantiated claims of harassment from 11 women, often in excruciating detail. 

An executive assistant reported how flirtatious attention turned to unwanted groping as Cuomo allegedly reached his hand under her blouse. “I was in such shock that I could just tell you that I just remember looking down seeing his hand,” she told investigators.

There was also the young assistant, Charlotte Bennett, who found after confiding to Cuomo about a sexual assault she had suffered that the governor was inquiring about her sex life and her interest in older men. “I thought I could help her work through a difficult time,” Cuomo explained on Tuesday, claiming his support had been misunderstood.

The report also lifted the veil on Cuomo’s ruthless political operation as it mobilised to protect a wounded boss. After Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official, tweeted about Cuomo’s harassment last December, worried aides such as Melissa DeRosa and Rich Azzopardi debated whether to release a confidential employee file to the press. They ultimately did.

With Cuomo’s assistance, they also drafted a letter — to be signed by former administration officials — impugning Boylan’s credibility and suggesting she was politically motivated and possibly even connected to Donald Trump. A communications aide, Dani Lever, who now works at Facebook, rejected the idea as “victim shaming,” and it was eventually abandoned.

Cuomo later told investigators the letter was written in the practice of Abraham Lincoln — as an act of catharsis never intended to be sent.

It was a far cry from the fatherly figure Cuomo portrayed when presiding over his daily Covid-19 briefings during the height of the pandemic, when he would wax poetic about Sunday spaghetti dinners with his father, Mario, a four-time New York governor, and gently rib his daughter’s boyfriend.

As more women came forward, Cuomo’s brother, Chris, a CNN anchor, joined a crisis management kitchen cabinet. Be contrite, he advised, according to the report.

Cuomo tried — staging a mea culpa press conference in early March where he apologised for behaviour that might have made women uncomfortable but insisted he had never touched anyone inappropriately. Aides emphasised the need to get back to work.

Within days, Cuomo appeared to revert to hard ball. In one text, Josh Vlasto, a former chief of staff, told colleagues that another aide, Steve Cohen, had been asked to release opposition research against Joon Kim, one of the outside attorneys James tapped to conduct the investigation. “Don’t think we want to be getting down with that crowd,” Vlasto wrote.

Around the same time, several New York county executives were surprised when Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s former secretary who was then serving as the state’s Covid-19 “vaccine tsar”, called to ask them about their support for the governor in light of the accusations. Schwartz, according to the report, began the discussions by insisting: “I’m not calling you about the vaccines.” Still, at least one county executive felt the threat was implicit and reported feeling “stunned and unsettled”.

To the attorney-general’s investigators, such conduct was not simply mistaken or ill-judged, but part of a pattern that enabled a domineering — and ultimately abusive — governor.

“Over the course of our investigation, most witnesses not in the governor’s inner circle provided a consistent narrative as to the office culture of the Executive Chamber, describing it as ‘toxic’ and full of bullying-type behaviour, where unflinching loyalty to the Governor and his senior staff was highly valued,” they wrote.

They paid such obeisance to Cuomo, they wrote, that “the governor appeared to believe he never behaved inappropriately”.

If he is not impeached by the state legislature, few think that Cuomo will go quickly or easily. The governor, who yearns to win a fourth term next year to eclipse the three served by his father, remarked on Tuesday on his essential value to New Yorkers, saying: “At the end of the day, we get good things done for people.”

Ken Frydman, a communications adviser to Rudy Giuliani in his first New York mayoral campaign, said Cuomo could survive “only if, like Trump and Rudy, he’s a shameless egomaniac in total denial. Which, apparently, he is.”

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