In the 165-page report issued last week by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, there is a curious incongruity that few seem to have noticed in their furor to denounce Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (How many journalists bothered to read the report before commenting, one wonders?) While press accounts have near-uniformly declared the allegations set forth to be supremely “damning,” a closer examination of the report itself, as well as the peculiar surrounding details, leaves room for a bit more ambiguity.
The report concludes that “under the totality of the circumstances,” Cuomo’s conduct “created a hostile work environment” and therefore constituted a violation—or multiple violations—of the law. “Even the Governor’s less overtly sexual comments that were nonetheless gender-based” contributed to this allegedly unlawful dynamic, the report opines.
“Opines” is an operative word here. Despite accusations leveled by James at her TV press conference that Cuomo “violated federal and state law,” no charges of any kind were brought against the governor, which makes this episode an extreme rarity in the annals of American due process. “For a prosecutor to say the things she did ... would be a violation of the code of ethics,” Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University, told me. “In New York state, I can’t think of another situation where an attorney general went so far,” he added. “A lot of her statements were quite inflammatory, and highly prejudicial.”
Among the “less overtly sexual” behavior cited in the report as being unlawfully “gender-based” was Cuomo’s apparent habit of “allowing senior staff members to sit on his lap at official functions” and “lying down with his head on the lap of staff members who are women.” This, the report alleges on page 148, was a key component of the overall “hostile work environment.”
But parsed out elsewhere in the report—evidently causing it to be missed by frenetic pundits—is the revelation that “none” of the staff involved in the lap-sitting activity “reported feeling uncomfortable with this behavior.”
In fact, the report’s authors concede, “a number of witnesses we spoke to informed us that all of this behavior led to a sense among staff members in the Executive Chamber that personal attention from the Governor, even if flirtatious … was not only normal, but to be valued.” This would seem to be exculpatory information of a kind—but a search across Google and Twitter suggests it’s been omitted almost entirely from the ensuing press coverage. Instead, these exculpatory testaments were somehow reconfigured by the report’s authors as evidence of Cuomo’s guilt. In the rush to axe Cuomo, media accounts appear to have wholly glossed over this discrepancy.
At her press conference, James proclaimed that one purpose of the investigation was to demonstrate that “we should believe women.” But it’s unclear whether the women who reportedly attested that they “valued” Cuomo’s conduct also merit such “belief”—and if so, why their testimonies were twisted to signify the opposite of what they apparently said. Either way, the attorney general’s standard of “belief” seems to involve explicitly accusing public officials of lawbreaking, while forsaking any obligation to actually prove those accusations in court.
As a three-term governor and product of a family dynasty—which includes a brother who functions as his personal PR flack on CNN prime time—Cuomo has a well-established record of megalomania and brute force political maneuvering. So the hostility he’s now engulfed by has been building for years.
Still, prior grudges should in theory have no bearing on whether it’s sound public policy to idly “believe,” for instance, accuser Charlotte Bennett—a former Cuomo aide and recent Hamilton College grad who currently identifies as a “womxn’s health, safety & justice advocate.” Bennett disclosed having communicated via DM with the first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, shortly after the latter wrote a vaguely condemnatory December 2020 Twitter thread complaining that Cuomo had “grilled” her about her work and “harassed” about her looks. Bennett proffered her own allegations shortly thereafter.
In another unusual aspect of the saga, Boylan was an active candidate for elective office at the time—running in the Democratic primary for Manhattan borough president. (She’d go on to lose handily.) Eventually pressed for specifics by the AG investigative team, Boylan cited an instance when “the Governor showed her around his office, and pointed out a cigar box which he said was from Bill Clinton.” Boylan said she “felt” this was “an allusion to President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.” Cuomo retorts that he routinely points out this box to innumerable visitors, male and female.
Bennett’s flagship allegation—which, again, requires unquestioning “belief” according to the attorney general, 99% of the media, President Joe Biden, Republicans demanding Cuomo’s “swift” arrest, etc.—is that she was “groomed” by Cuomo as a 25-year-old professional political operative. That’s what Bennett said in a March interview, and that’s what is repeated in the report. This repurposing of “grooming” from a concept that typically refers to illicit predation by adults on children, to adult-on-adult interaction, is now apparently a compulsory mainstream “belief.” One example of Cuomo’s purported “grooming” is when he referred to Bennett as “Daisy Duke” on a day she wore shorts to the office.
Cuomo’s repeated use of the words “honey,” “darling,” and “sweetheart” also feature prominently in the report as examples of his alleged lawbreaking.
Another frequent topic of discussion is Cuomo’s tendency to put his hand on the waist of women while posing for photos. Ana Liss, an aide who in March came forward to The Wall Street Journal as the “third accuser” after Boylan and Bennett—with the implication being that a snowball of accusers had accumulated—produced one such 2014 photo to investigators as evidence, having first provided it to the Journal. Indeed, the photo does show Cuomo’s hand placed around the waist of a smiling and laughing Liss, in what previously might have been considered an unremarkable pose in which to take a joint photo. Per her own comments to the newspaper, Liss continued to display the incriminating photo in her office until at least March 6, 2021. She later told AG investigators she had once been “proud” of this photo, given that it indicated she “was around [Cuomo] and adjacent to him.” But in her mind it had subsequently “[taken] on a different meaning” after the “broader dialogue started percolating from other women.”
Some of Cuomo’s commentary does resemble the sort of rhetoric that one might associate with a forgotten 1970s sitcom. The term “mingle mamas” appears 11 separate times in the report, deriving from a seemingly jocular conversation in which Cuomo’s lawyer contends that two women staffers had told him they were soon leaving for a vacation together to Florida, without their spouses—and hence that they were “single and ready to mingle.” Further suggesting a possible jocular connotation, one woman submitted a contemporaneous text message in which she made reference to the term, writing “lol mingle mama [emoji].” The authors of the report later deem this to have been “an offensive interaction.”
Another purported instance of unlawful conduct took place in full public view at one of Cuomo’s signature COVID-19 press conferences. The report erroneously says the press conference in question occurred on March 17, 2020; it was actually May 17, 2020. Perhaps the AG’s office should’ve invested in some additional fact-checkers. Either way, Cuomo had volunteered himself to take a nasal swab test on-camera. The female doctor administering the test was clad in full “PPE” gear, and Cuomo, in accordance with the joshing demeanor he’d exhibited throughout most of the session, said: “Nice to see you doctor. You make that gown look good.” The doctor is anonymized in the report, but easily identifiable (by watching the video) as Elizabeth Dufort, a former Brown University fellow who later left the state Health Department under unspecified circumstances. Dufort ultimately told investigators that “she found the Governor’s comments offensive,” in that “they would not have been made to an accomplished physician who was a man.”
One incident that most fair-minded observers would likely agree constitutes indisputable misconduct—if true—is when Cuomo is charged to have “slid his hand up” an unidentified woman’s blouse and “grabbed her breast.” Cuomo adamantly denies this anonymous accusation; the woman, Brittany Commisso, eventually revealed her identity to CBS. Surely the truth of the matter could be ascertained in an appropriately adversarial legal setting. However, by Letitia James’ own admission, ascertaining truth seems not to have been the purpose of this particular investigation.