Women’s groups propose rules for sexual harassment investigation of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
By Michael Scherer,
A coalition of women’s rights and sexual abuse survivor advocates will ask the New York attorney general on Friday to adopt rules to protect accusers and avoid political interference in the investigation into whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) sexually harassed his subordinates, while demanding his resignation if the claims against him are upheld.
The letter, set to be delivered Friday afternoon, is intended both as a message to the state’s chief legal officer, Letitia James, who is leading the investigation, and the broader public about how a fair and transparent investigation of workplace misconduct should be handled.
The groups ask for James to adopt a civil law standard for determining Cuomo’s potential wrongdoing, as opposed to the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” They ask for “the full collection of relevant evidence” from contemporaneous sources and witnesses, and for the accusers not to be discounted because of questions of their sexual history, mental health struggles or record of championing “women’s causes.”
“Transparency is critical with respect to the survivor’s right to seek justice. If there is a credible finding that sexual harassment or assault occurred, there must be consequences; in this case, Gov. Cuomo’s resignation,” the group writes in the letter.
“There is not a broad public understanding of what fair and thorough investigations look like,” said Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder of UltraViolet, a feminist group focused on ending sexism, who helped draft the letter. “This is a potentially crucial and paradigm-shifting moment for survivor justice.”
The letter is signed by nine different organizations so far, including Time’s Up, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, National Women’s Law Center, Survivors Know and Women’s March. Other signatories include the ‘me too’ Movement, a group founded by Tarana Burke; Tewa Women United, a Native American group in New Mexico; and PB Work Solutions, a workplace training consultancy headed by Paula Brantner.
Cuomo, 63, has maintained that he had never touched any woman “inappropriately” but has admitted and apologized for behavior that had caused harm in ways he said he did not recognize at the time. He has refused calls to resign and asked the public to await the conclusion of James’s investigation before passing judgment on him.
He initially worked to limit James’s independent authority over the investigation, proposing that a retired federal judge lead the probe and then that James work with the chief judge of New York, Janet DiFiore, to pick someone to lead the investigation. James refused those terms, after which Cuomo agreed to refer the matter to her for an independent investigation with subpoena power.
The letter writers say they do not doubt James’s intent to conduct a fair investigation of the Cuomo accusations, but nonetheless say a “comprehensive list of characteristics” for such an investigation needs to be publicly declared.
“It is really important that no matter where you sit in this situation, if you are working with someone who is really powerful and famous, or powerful and famous only to you, that we normalize the idea that there are fair and appropriate approaches to these allegations,” said Fatima Goss Graves, the president of the National Women’s Law Center.
They emphasize that the news reporting on allegations is not a substitute for an independent investigation.
“Frequently, the media gives equal weight to the survivor and perpetrator without taking into account the difference in positions of power,” the letter reads. “Negative press coverage has very different ramifications for a governor who comes from a politically connected family, rather than a young woman with little or no political influence.”
The question of what legal standard to use in a harassment investigation has been a point of contention in recent years. The Obama administration instructed schools that receive federal funds to use the lower “preponderance of evidence” standard in sexual misconduct cases.
That decision was rescinded by the Trump administration, which said schools could use either the Obama standard or a “clear and convincing” standard, which sets a higher bar for finding wrongdoing.
Cuomo’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment Friday morning. A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said James looks forward to receiving and reviewing the letter.
Cuomo recently has been accused by three women of inappropriate behavior in separate incidents. Charlotte Bennett, 25, a former executive assistant, told the New York Times that the governor asked her about her sex life, including a past sexual assault. She said he told her in a private meeting that he was lonely and open to dating much younger women. She said she understood that he was trying to sleep with her.
Bennett expanded on her claims in a CBS News interview broadcast Friday morning, when she said that the day after that conversation he met with her again privately. She said he asked her for help with his phone and asked her “if I have found him a girlfriend yet.” She responded by saying she was working on it.
“I was terrified. I was shaking,” she said. “I thought at any moment something could happen, and I have no power here.”
A former New York state economic development official, Lindsey Boylan, 36, told the Times earlier that Cuomo suggested a game of strip poker and kissed her on the mouth without consent in a different set of interactions.
In the third instance, Anna Ruch, 33, who was not a government employee, said the governor touched her back at a 2019 wedding that he attended. When she removed his hand, he clasped her face, kissed her and called her aggressive, she said. She also made public a photo of Cuomo’s hands on her face.
A Quinnipiac University poll this week found that 55 percent of the state’s voters say Cuomo should not resign, but the same poll found that 59 percent of voters did not want him to seek a fourth term as governor in 2022. By a margin of roughly 2 to 1, New Yorkers said that were not satisfied with Cuomo’s explanation and apology for the sexual harassment allegations against him.
Cuomo is facing a separate investigation by federal prosecutors into his administration’s decision last year to not release the full number of deaths of nursing home patients from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Reports by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on Thursday said state documents showed the governor’s decision to hold back the accurate numbers led to internal fights with state health officials.
Cuomo advisers, the newspapers reported, rewrote a report to remove the full count of nursing home deaths. Cuomo advisers have since said they were concerned that the data could be used as a political weapon by Cuomo’s critics, including those in the Trump administration.