Calls grow for Cuomo harassment inquiry. But by whom?
Albany, N.Y. – A former aide’s allegations that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss during years of sexual harassment have spurred calls for an investigation – and questions about who might meaningfully conduct one.
Within hours of Lindsey Boylan detailing her claims about the Democratic governor in an online post Wednesday, five Republican state senators urged New York’s attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. At least one Democratic state senator also has called for an inquiry.
Demands are also coming from some voices outside the state Capitol, including the prominent national anti-sexual-harassment organization Time’s Up and an advocacy group launched by former New York legislative employees who experienced such harassment.
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki fielded a question Thursday about Boylan’s allegations and responded that President Joe Biden has long said that anyone coming forward with sexual harassment claims should be treated with “dignity and respect” and deserves to “be heard.”
Cuomo called Boylan’s allegations “just not true” when she first broached them without details in December. His office issued another denial Wednesday.
As the allegations prompt requests to investigate, they’re also revealing the politics and complexities of potentially doing so, particularly given longstanding complaints that the state ethics commission isn’t sufficiently independent.
“What the state needs generally … is a more independent office to investigate and prosecute misconduct in government,” says Alan Rothstein, a member of the board of the good-government group Citizens Union. “At the end of the day, you need a way to hold government officials accountable.”
Here’s a look at some possible avenues for an investigation, if one is undertaken:
THE ETHICS COMMISSION
New York launched the ethics agency, known as JCOPE, in 2011 after a string of corruption cases, scandals and complaints that a previous iteration was limp, unwieldy and prone to gridlock.
The agency has tackled sexual harassment claims in the past, finding that former Democratic Assembly Member Vito Lopez made unwanted sexual advances on female staffers. A legislative ethics committee eventually fined him $330,000.
But JCOPE has also come under criticism, including that it’s too close to the governor, who appoints six of its 14 members. By law, undertaking an investigation into any governor would require a yes vote from two of his or her appointees.
In 2019, JCOPE didn’t open an investigation into former top Cuomo aide Joe Percoco’s use of state resources. Percoco is currently in federal prison, convicted of accepting more than $300,000 from companies seeking to influence Cuomo’s administration.
The Republican senators seeking an investigation into Boylan’s allegations called JCOPE “just another extension of the governor’s control.”
Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger sounded somewhat similar concerns, saying that “all credible allegations of sexual harassment” must be thoroughly and independently investigated but that JCOPE is “compromised and ineffective.”
Evan Davis, former counsel to the late Gov. Mario Cuomo – the current governor’s father – said a JCOPE investigation into Boylan’s allegations “would just be total farce, in terms of credibility.”
If Andrew Cuomo’s six appointees were to recuse themselves, the group could fall short of a quorum and be unable to act because there’s currently a vacancy among the other eight members, Davis noted.
JCOPE spokesperson Walt McClure said Thursday he couldn’t comment on any matter that is or might be under investigation.
“The only thing I can see that works now is if the Legislature were to hire an outside legal firm to do a thorough investigation,” Davis said. “That would be the only way to do this without politics.”
The Legislature’s Democratic leaders called Boylan’s allegations serious and disturbing but stopped short of suggesting an investigation. Inquiries were sent to their representatives Thursday about whether they supported one.
In theory, the Legislature could appoint a commission to conduct one, Rothstein said. But from the statehouse to the U.S. Capitol, such commissions can spark arguments over how much power one branch of government has to investigate another.
A SPECIAL PROSECUTOR
In a letter to Democratic state Attorney General Letitia James, the five Republican state senators asked for the immediate appointment of a special prosecutor.
“If these allegations are true, the actions of the governor and his staff are not only grossly inappropriate – they are also potentially criminal in nature,” wrote Sens. Patricia Ritchie, Pamela Helming, Alexis Weik, Susan Serino and Daphne Jordan.
Cuomo himself appointed a special prosecutor in 2018 to explore allegations that former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, abused four women during what were supposed to be romantic encounters. The special prosecutor ultimately didn’t bring any charges.
The attorney general’s Civil Rights Bureau sometimes looks into sexual harassment complaints itself if it sees evidence of “a pattern, practice or policy of sexual harassment affecting a significant number of people.” Boylan accused Cuomo of “pervasive harassment” of female staffers.
James’ office said Thursday it has received the senators’ letter and is reviewing it.
The state Division of Human Resources, state Labor Department and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission all can field sexual harassment complaints. But the timeframe for filing such complaints range from 180 days to a year; Boylan left her job in September 2018.
New York City’s Human Rights Commission has a three-year window for filing sexual harassment claims. Boylan’s narrative says the unwelcome kiss happened in Cuomo’s New York City office and seems to place it in 2018 but doesn’t specify a date.
Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, declined to be interviewed.
Peltz reported from New York. Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak in New York and Jonathan Lemire in Washington contributed.