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Cuomo asks state AG, top judge, to launch harassment probe

by Karen Matthews & Marina Villeneuve
| February 28, 2021 10:06 AM

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked the state's attorney general and chief appeals court judge to jointly appoint an independent lawyer to investigate claims he sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him.

It was unclear whether the proposal would appease legislative leaders and other top Democrats who had assailed Cuomo's initial plan to appoint a retired federal judge to review his workplace conduct.

“The Governor’s Office wants a review of the sexual harassment claims made against the Governor to be done in a manner beyond reproach,” Beth Garvey, special counsel to the governor, said. “We had selected former Federal Judge Barbara Jones, with a stellar record for qualifications and integrity, but we want to avoid even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics."

Garvey said the Democratic governor's administration has asked Attorney General Letitia James and Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, to jointly select "an independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation to conduct a thorough review of the matter and issue a public report.”

Garvey said that report would be solely controlled by the lawyer doing the review.

The administration's proposal came almost simultaneously with a statement from James calling on Cuomo to issue an executive order putting her in exclusive control of the inquiry. She said such a referral would empower to issue subpoenas, enforceable in court.

“There must be a truly independent investigation to thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor, and I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary,” James said. "I urge the governor to make this referral immediately.”

The plan for James and DiFiore, who was appointed to her position by Cuomo, to choose an investigator jointly, met a cascade of criticism from fellow Democrats who called for him to relinquish all control of the investigation to James.

Under state law, the state attorney general needs a referral from the governor in order to investigate his conduct.

A spokesperson for James called Cuomo’s idea of simply giving her a role in selecting the investigator unacceptable because that inquisitor would lack the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents, and would have to rely on voluntary cooperation.

State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate majority leader and a Democrat from suburban Westchester County, said through her spokesperson, “We support the AG and her call for referral.”

The crisis now enveloping Cuomo's office developed rapidly after a second woman on Saturday went public with a story about being harassed by the governor in the workplace.

Charlotte Bennett, a low-level aide in the governor’s administration until November, told The New York Times that Cuomo asked her inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men.

Her accusation came days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, elaborated on harassment allegations she first made in December. Boylan said Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and inappropriate comments.

The 63-year-old Cuomo said in a statement Saturday he had intended to be a mentor for Bennett, who is 25. He has denied Boylan's allegations.

A group of more than a dozen Democratic women in the state Assembly said in a statement: “The Governor’s proposal to appoint someone who is not independently elected, has no subpoena authority, and no prosecutorial authority is inadequate.”

Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, said on Twitter, “As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee I think it’s wholly inappropriate for Chief Judge DiFiore -- who was appointed by the Governor and who would have a constitutional role in potential future proceedings -- to be part of the investigation process.”

Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Island, tweeted, “The NY Attorney General should not need a referral to begin a criminal investigation. This is an issue I have been working on for some time, and will be introducing legislation tomorrow.”

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Matthews reported from New York City.