Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cannot survive in office. Nor should he, given the nature, specificity and credibility of the accusations detailed in the report issued Tuesday by Attorney General Letitia James.
We take no satisfaction in the conclusion. Cuomo has been the best governor for Buffalo since DeWitt Clinton began construction of the Erie Canal. He won well-deserved praise for his management of the pandemic, despite some missteps. But the conduct spelled out in the 168-page report is intolerable. It isn’t covered by generational or cultural differences.
Indeed, the report, prepared for James’ office by independent investigators, paints a picture of a man in power who felt free to touch women or speak to them in a sexually suggestive manner. It concludes that he broke state and federal laws prohibiting retaliation against anyone making a good faith complaint of unlawful discrimination or harassment. His behavior apparently was an open secret that was tolerated and covered up in the executive branch.
It’s all the more dismaying given the times in which we live. The #MeToo movement rang the bell on that kind of conduct, and Cuomo was in the Cabinet of President Bill Clinton, who was impeached over sexual misconduct and related issues.
Yet as recently as last year, Cuomo engaged in sexually charged comments with a female aide, Charlotte Bennett, who reported them to the governor’s chief of staff. The response was to move Bennett to a different position, rather than report the allegations to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations or initiate any formal investigation.
Even worse was the harassment reported by a state trooper whom Cuomo wanted transferred to his protective detail, even though in 2017 she was short of the mandatory three years’ experience. She applied for the transfer and, once on the job, she told investigators, the harassment began. It included “flirtatious” and “creepy” comments, she said, and on three occasions – each contemporaneously corroborated – she said he touched her inappropriately.
Buffalo’s Howard Zemsky, then head of Empire State Development, acknowledged the risks to an aide who had attracted what Zemsky believed to be inappropriate interest from the governor, who said she was more beautiful than a particular Hollywood actress. Zemsky told the aide, Lindsey Boylan, that Cuomo had a crush on her and asked if she wanted his help warding off Cuomo’s attention, an offer she declined.
Hours after the report’s release, Cuomo denied sexually harassing current or former staff members, but the denials ask New Yorkers to believe that the 11 women who gave testimony to investigators – from aides in Albany to a state trooper to people outside of government, much of it corroborated – are either conspiring against him or that all of them misunderstood conduct he insists was innocent. Similarly, he suggests that the investigators, empowered by the Democratic attorney general, are politically motivated.
There was a time when powerful men could get away with behavior like this. President Kennedy did, at a time when the press didn’t report on such conduct. But former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was patronizing a prostitute, didn’t. Former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, accused of physically abusing women, didn’t. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, king of the selfies, didn’t.
Cuomo has placed himself in an impossible position and put Democratic legislators in a painful one. The Assembly is already conducting an impeachment investigation. Its members would surely prefer a clean break and Cuomo cannot possibly want the further humiliation of the public testimony an impeachment proceeding would require.
Public officials of both parties, including President Biden and Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo, are calling on Cuomo to resign. What happens next is up to him, but we trust Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul is preparing.
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