Harassment, bullying claims dog Cuomo, once a pandemic star

KAREN MATTHEWS
·5-min read
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2021 photo, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, pauses to listen to a reporter's question during a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site in the Brooklyn borough of New York. New York's attorney general said she's moving forward with an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the governor after receiving a letter from his office Monday authorizing her to take charge of the probe. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool, file)

NEW YORK (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose televised coronavirus briefings won plaudits last spring, is now fighting for his political life amid accusations of sexual harassment, bullying and undercounting virus deaths connected to the state's nursing homes.

Here's a look at the trio of challenges faced by the three-term Democrat:

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SEXUAL HARASSMENT

New York's attorney general was empowered Monday to choose an independent investigator to probe allegations of sexual harassment by at least two women who worked for Cuomo.

Former economic development adviser Lindsey Boylan, 36, first accused Cuomo of harassment on Twitter in December, saying he had made inappropriate comments about her appearance.

Her initial, nonspecific accusations initially seemed barely to dent Cuomo's reputation. But in a Feb. 24 Medium post she elaborated, saying Cuomo once kissed her on the lips without her consent and suggested on another occasion that the two of them should play strip poker.

Boylan said that during her more than three years in Cuomo's administration, the governor “would go out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs" and commented that she looked like a woman he'd been reported to have dated.

Cuomo denied Boylan's allegations, calling them "just not true.”

Then, a second former staffer, 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett, told The New York Times in a story posted online Saturday that Cuomo had asked inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men.

Bennett said Cuomo told her he was lonely since breaking up with TV food personality Sandra Lee and wanted a girlfriend. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett told the Times.

Another woman, Anna Ruch, spoke to the Times on Monday night about an encounter with the governor at a wedding reception, during which she said he touched her face and back and asked to kiss her moments after they met.

Cuomo released a statement Sunday saying some of his behavior with women “may have been insensitive or too personal” but suggesting that he meant no harm.

"I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that,” Cuomo said.

The statement struck critics as a tone-deaf failure to admit wrongdoing.

“That’s not an apology,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a frequent Cuomo antagonist, said Monday. “He seemed to be saying, 'Oh, I was just kidding around.' You know, sexual harassment is not funny. It’s serious.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat and sometime Cuomo ally, will choose an investigator to examine his workplace behavior.

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NURSING HOMES

Last spring, as the coronavirus raged through New York's nursing homes, some critics questioned whether the state had made things worse by telling homes they had to accept recovering COVID-19 patients discharged from hospitals.

Cuomo's administration, and top hospital officials, have insisted the policy wasn't a factor in the spread of the virus and saved lives by freeing up hospital beds.

But in the face of criticism, it withheld information about the true death toll among nursing home patients.

For months, the state's count of nursing home dead excluded people who died after being transferred to hospitals.

An Associated Press investigation last year concluded that the state could be understating nursing home deaths by as much as 65%. James, the attorney general, issued a report in late January estimating the state's count was off by 50%.

The state’s official death toll in long-term care facilities now stands at over 15,000, up from the roughly 9,000 previously disclosed.

Cuomo's top aide, Melissa De Rosa, told legislators recently that the administration had withheld the full data from the public because it was worried it would “be used against us.”

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BULLYING

Among the critics of Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths was state Assembly member Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat who said an uncle of his died in a nursing home and he wanted answers.

Kim told reporters that when Cuomo called him on Feb. 11 to complain about a quote he’d given to the New York Post, the conversation devolved into threats.

Kim said Cuomo berated him and threatened to “destroy” him if he didn’t get the newspaper to retract statements he had made faulting Cuomo.

Cuomo staff members denied that the governor had threatened to “destroy” Kim. His spokesperson, who was listening to the Feb. 11 call, called Kim a liar and said the governor was just trying to defend himself against a false accusation.

But critics of the governor's hard-charging style said Kim's accusation had the ring of truth.

“A number of your colleagues in the media will tell you about calls where they were berated and belittled," de Blasio told a reporter. "It’s something that a lot of people in New York state have known about for a long time. I can’t get into the why. That’s a deeper question, I can only say it’s a very unfortunate way to treat people.”

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat and frequent Cuomo critic, said she’d been subjected to the governor’s pressure tactics, too. “They have said things to me and sent ominous messages to me and the governor himself has made threatening remarks to me,” said Biaggi, whose district includes Bronx and Westchester.