Another look is due. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
It has been more than a year since Andrew Cuomo resigned as New York’s governor under the cloud of multiple accusations of sexual harassment. His downfall could be seen as a remarkable victory for the #MeToo movement and its quest to hold powerful men (including liberal feminists!) accountable for sexual misconduct.
But the governor and his still-numerous supporters argue that the story is one of political grudges and a #MeToo-driven rush to judgment. Is that a self-serving narrative by a disgraced politician seeking a comeback, or a claim that deserves serious consideration? After an exclusive phone interview with Cuomo last month and an extensive dive into publicly available documents, I believe the governor’s resignation may eventually be seen, like that of Sen. Al Franken in 2017, as a case of #MeToo excess rather than success.
Last year, when I first wrote about the case in the wake of the report prepared by Joon Kim and Anne Clark and released by Attorney General Letitia James, which concluded that Gov. Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women, I felt there was strong evidence that he had been grossly inappropriate with some employees — in particular, a 25-year-old assistant, Charlotte Bennett. I also noted that some other reported allegations were exceedingly trivial (from mild banter to photo ops in which the governor had an arm around a woman’s waist) and that the most serious one, of groping an executive assistant (later identified as Brittany Commisso), had no corroboration.
However, a close look at the record leaves me with much more doubt about the validity of the seemingly compelling claims such as Bennett’s — and about the way the inquiry was handled. This doesn’t mean that Cuomo did nothing wrong or that the attorney general’s report is a straight-up hit job, as he and his supporters insist, but it does raise troubling questions about the possible weaponization of #MeToo.
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“Eleven cases!” Cuomo told me. “The attorney general stands up and says, ‘11 cases of sexual harassment.’ Well, that creates a whole press frenzy. You don’t even have to bother to read the report. Even if they got a few wrong, there were so many! What Democrat is going to say anything other than, ‘You have to resign?’ ”
The snowball effect of accumulating complaints of groping and unwanted kissing was also key to Franken’s fall. Yet when New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer investigated the allegations in depth, she made a strong case that none held up.
In the Cuomo case, much of the record is available in voluminous interviews and exhibits (including chats, emails and texts) from the attorney general’s investigation, with additional material included in Cuomo’s application to amend the report, prepared by his attorney Rita Glavin.
Making sense of this record is not easy: Apart from its size, it’s a trip down a proverbial rabbit hole. The task is complicated by the fact that under contemporary progressive norms, especially post-#MeToo, questioning the credibility of those who say they are survivors is widely seen as reprehensible.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this dilemma better than the controversy around Lindsey Boylan, the former aide who was the first to accuse Cuomo of harassment — including an unwanted kiss on the lips.
Loyal Cuomo aides have been accused of retaliatory smear tactics for sharing personnel files that showed Boylan quit her job after being advised of lower-level staffers’ complaints about her own behavior. Yet surely this is relevant to assessing Boylan’s allegations, since her account of her resignation implicitly blamed a sexually abusive environment. (Records also indicate Boylan tried to get her job back shortly after leaving.)
Likewise, the sharing of Boylan’s text messages to some Cuomo advisers several months before the first accusation is relevant to credibility and motive. Boylan, who then was challenging Rep. Jerry Nadler in a primary campaign, was incensed when the governor’s executive order shortened the nominating petition period because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I see what the point is here and I will find ways to respond,” said one message (which is mentioned in passing in the attorney general report and buried in the supporting exhibits). “Life is long. And so is my memory. And so are my resources.” Until then, Boylan had posted enthusiastic tweets about the governor, including about his support for women.
The texts, which suggest that Boylan saw the shortening of the petition period as a personal attack, also raise obvious questions about her judgment. So do other startling details: a former co-worker’s account of her message threatening to “ruin [his] life” when he would not corroborate one of her allegations; or Boylan’s repeated references to the governor’s “big phallic desk” while telling investigators about the supposedly threatening atmosphere in his office.
While Boylan’s allegations started the scandal, Bennett, the second to come forward, was instrumental in convincing many people of the governor’s guilt. For one, she alleged an actual, if veiled, sexual overture via suggestive questions about dating older men; she had also contemporaneously reported those remarks in 2020 to a friend, to her parents, and to Cuomo’s chief of staff Jill DesRosiers, ultimately resulting in reassignment to a new job.
Cuomo’s explanation—that the discussion was part of a mentoring, fatherly role and related to Bennett’s possible personal problems—certainly invites skepticism. And yet the totality of the record, including Bennett’s interviews with the governor’s general counsel Judith Mogul at the time of the job transfer, does make a plausible case that this was more a matter of inappropriate boundaries in a boss/subordinate relationship than of sexual advances.
There are other red flags. For instance, the incident Bennett has described as a “turning point” — in which she says the governor repeatedly, creepily intoned, “You were raped” while discussing her upcoming speech at her alma mater, Hamilton College, about her sexual assault as a student — actually does have a credible explanation in Cuomo’s testimony.
According to Cuomo, Bennett asked for help with the speech and summarized her planned remarks, which he felt lacked impact. His proposed version was, “I was raped at this school, but then I was violated a second time by the school,” repeated twice for emphasis. While one could argue that Cuomo’s account still makes him look insensitive — he acknowledged that Bennett “visibly…didn’t like” what he said — it is very far from Bennett’s allegation.
Notably, when Bennett spoke to Mogul in the summer of 2020, she depicted her interactions with Cuomo in a far less negative light than a year later. In 2021, she said that after the exchange about her speech, she came to see Cuomo’s prior conduct as “grooming.” In 2020, according to Mogul’s notes, she stressed she still saw the governor as “friendly,” despite discomfort with personal conversations which she had previously regarded as unusual but “not inappropriate.”
Was Bennett minimizing her problems in 2020 because of her state job — or exaggerating in 2021 after allying herself with Boylan, who (as the attorney general’s report concedes) pushed her hard to go public? That’s a tough question.
But it is worth noting that another fact that may affect Bennett’s credibility was ignored in the report and in nearly all media coverage: In 2017, Hamilton College settled a lawsuit from a male student who claimed that Bennett had falsely accused him of “nonconsensual sexual contact,” had admitted as much in a recorded conversation, and had colluded with three other complainants.
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To examine all the Cuomo allegations in even minimal detail would take more space than I have here.
What does it mean that all the criminal sexual assault cases opened against him — including the one based on Commisso’s complaint, in which charges were actually filed — were dropped by early 2022? Cuomo claims total vindication, but that’s too easy: criminal cases have a very high bar of belief in guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard for sexual harassment complaints in civil court (Cuomo is currently facing one from a state trooper who claims unwelcome touching) is much lower.
But while the district attorneys stressed that the women with criminal complaints were “credible,” a review of the record raises many questions. For instance, Cuomo’s official response to the attorney general makes a strong case that Executive Mansion time logs show the groping incident alleged by Commisso could not have happened as she claimed.
What of the lesser claims — some of which involve women who do not believe they were harassed, or were not state employees?
Feminist author Rebecca Traister, writing in New York magazine, concluded that Cuomo’s behavior amounted to “diminishment and tokenization that may take a sexualized form, and may involve objectification and flirtation.”
But these are largely subjective and context-dependent conclusions. Female staffers themselves, investigation records show, commented on the governor’s pop-star sex appeal and discussed his love life; shared selfies taken with the governor and bantered about being “jealous” of such selfies; and humorously repeated Cuomo’s jokes that the report would characterize as offensive (e.g., “mingle mamas” in reference to Commisso and fellow accuser Alyssa McGrath, who had talked about plans to “mingle” on vacation).
In the #MeToo framework, such behaviors are seen as coping strategies to accommodate powerful men. But this approach, while sometimes useful, erases the nuance of individual cases — and denies female agency.
One may argue that, even if innocuous, many of Cuomo’s interactions reflected poor judgment; indeed, he acknowledged that perhaps he “should have been more attuned to the evolution of cultural values and cultural behavior” and to differing personal sensitivity levels. But it is also true that the physicality and humor branded as domineering or “creepy” are seen by some people as warm and approachable.
Not very long ago, similar issues nearly derailed Joe Biden’s presidential run. Ultimately, Biden got the benefit of the doubt. Cuomo got the least charitable interpretation possible.
In our conversation, Cuomo was particularly bitter about what he sees as a hatchet job by James, who entered the governor’s race in October 2021 following the Cuomo report (but soon dropped out). He now believes it was “a mistake” to agree to have her as a reviewer: “I knew the attorney general had a clear and blatant conflict and should be disqualified. [But] I said that she had to pick independent reviewers. That was my way of curing the conflict.”
James, he argues, failed this requirement on two levels: by giving the investigation to a law firm that specializes in representing sexual harassment plaintiffs, and by being personally involved. (I contacted the attorney general’s office; after some back-and-forth with a spokeswoman, no comment was given.)
Obviously, Cuomo’s assessment is self-interested. And yet it is easy to find instances in which the report’s rendering of the facts seems purposely bent against the then-governor.
For instance, the section on Boylan’s resignation states that “a conflict arose between Ms. Boylan and an assistant,” but the interview cited as the source says three employees had complaints about Boylan.
Or take the treatment of allegations by energy company employee Virginia Limmiatis, who said that when greeting her at a conservation event the governor read the company name on her shirt while sliding his fingers across the logo on her upper chest (an act she called “heinous”).
The report mentions photos from the event and Limmiatis’ claim that “it was difficult for her to even review” them because of “negative emotions.” But while supporting materials include a photo of Limmiatis wearing the shirt and two photos of the governor with other people, the four photos showing Limmiatis are omitted. In one, Cuomo’s hand is near her shoulder or upper chest; she is smiling at him and has her hand on her shoulder. In two others, she follows him around moments later taking photos with her phone.
And of the three attendees to whom Limmiatis mentioned her encounter with the governor shortly afterward, an affidavit was included from the one who said she was upset about it — but not from the two who said she was not.
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In our interview, Cuomo made it clear that he sees his predicament partly as a result of pressure on politicians and press to “believe all accusers.”
There is irony here, previously noted by Brooklyn College professor K.C. Johnson in these pages: Cuomo himself was once in the forefront of such advocacy. “We owe it to the American people to #BelieveSurvivors,” he tweeted during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Cuomo also spearheaded changes in campus sexual misconduct investigations that many believe tipped the balance against the accused.
Cuomo reiterated to me that he was “proud” of the laws he had helped enact: “There is no doubt that the situation was unjust and that women were discriminated against. I think the laws were good. It doesn’t mean due process is discarded.” The problem, he said, was with politicians or “unscrupulous attorneys” exploiting such charges — and with the unanticipated impact of “a social media dynamic that just assumes that any complaint is true.”
As a due process advocate, I think Cuomo’s assessment of his past role is too self-exculpatory. But that doesn’t lessen the failures of fact-finding and fairness in his case. Those facts deserve, if nothing else, a thorough new look.
Young is a writer and fellow at the Cato Institute.
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News
Another look is due. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)