‘Mean girls’ and heels: Transcripts shed light on Cuomo saga
Albany, N.Y. – Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared pugilistic and paranoid at times in an 11-hour deposition, made public Wednesday, denying the sexual harassment allegations that forced him from office while ascribing political motives to the people investigating his behavior.
Meanwhile, in their own interviews, his accusers detailed a “toxic” workplace in the Cuomo administration where they said they were subjected to crude remarks, creepy questions about their sex lives, hazing and bullying.
New York Attorney General Letitia James released hundreds of pages of transcripts Wednesday of interviews a team of independent investigators did earlier this year with 10 of Cuomo’s accusers, plus the governor himself.
The interviews, led by former acting U.S. Attorney for Manhattan Joon Kim and employment lawyer Anne Clark, focused mostly on the serious allegations against Cuomo, including a claim that he groped an aide’s breast after summoning her to his office in 2020.
But they also produced odd exchanges and offered a window into Cuomo’s confrontational style. Here are notable moments from the many hours of testimony:
Show some leg
Several former employees testified in detail about Cuomo and other men on his staff speaking in a demeaning and disparaging way about women.
Brittany Commisso, the aide who said Cuomo groped her at the executive mansion last year, said the governor would look her up and down and once asked whether she ever had sex with anyone other than her husband.
“He would make comments about if I wore a particular thing, how thin I looked,” Commisso said. “That I looked good for my age and being a mother.”
“When I wore a dress, he would comment about how it’s about time that you showed some leg,” she said.
When former aide Charlotte Bennett was promoted to be an executive assistant, she bought heels to wear because colleagues made it clear Cuomo expected it.
“It felt like we had gone back a few decades,” Bennett said.
Cuomo said he may have referred to women on his staff as “honey, “sweetheart” or “darling.”
“You know, one time in my life, ‘honey’ was a fine thing to say, ‘darling’ was a fine thing to say,” he said. “It’s not anymore.”
Still, asked if he regretted anything he’s said to women in the workplace, Cuomo said “no.”
In his testimony, Cuomo suggested he’d given his office manager the authority to sign legislation into law on his behalf.
Cuomo said Stephanie Benton could sign “virtually almost any document” that came across his desk. Sometimes she used an autopen machine that replicated Cuomo’s signature. Or, she just scrawled his name herself.
“I’m not asking about autosigning,” Kim clarified. “I’m asking about physically signing a document. Has Stephanie Benton physically signed bills for you, legislation?”
“She may have,” Cuomo said.
Hours later, after prompting from his lawyer, Cuomo clarified Benton only used the autopen device when signing legislation.
Cuomo acknowledged he didn’t take required sexual harassment training in 2020 or 2021, saying he was focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. That contradicted what Cuomo told reporters in May, when he said he’d taken the training “this year.”
The issue of his signature came up when he acknowledged it might have been Benton who signed his name on a 2019 form affirming he had completed the state’s annual, mandatory sexual harassment training.
Cuomo was confrontational with Kim and Clark, saying their investigation was “biased” and “political.”
He complained that James’ selection of Kim was “a perversion” of what he said was his condition that she pick an “independent reviewer” to lead the probe because as a federal prosecutor Kim investigated Cuomo’s administration.
Cuomo also suggested Kim was a puppet for his predecessor as U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara, and “his rabbi,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Kim mostly refrained from responding to the attacks, but at one point he asked if Cuomo was looking for “negative information” about lawyers in the probe.
“Well, what are you worried about, Joon?” Cuomo said.
Cuomo closed the deposition with another jab at Kim: “I would like to say it was a pleasure, Mr. Kim. But I’m under oath.”
Describing the culture in Cuomo’s office, former aide Charlotte Bennett said staff dreaded meeting with him and would sometimes be in tears afterward.
“It was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior,” Bennett said. “… That mood and that anger, or that fear of him suddenly becoming angry, definitely ruled the office and then trickled down.”
The governor allegedly pounded his fist into a door in frustration, lashed out if phone calls wouldn’t transfer or if he didn’t look good in photos, and one time told a top aide he was lucky he didn’t throw him out the window.
“It just depended on the day and the mood he was in, but it was not uncommon for me to get in trouble for something ridiculous,” a former aide identified only as Kaitlin testified.
Cuomo and several former employees all testified about a nickname used around the office for his top aides: “the mean girls,” a group that included his hard-driving top adviser, Melissa DeRosa.
Cuomo testified he was aware of the moniker, but dismissed it as a “silly gossipy thing” that a former male staffer came up with. Cuomo also argued it’s sexist to portray successful female employees as “catty.”
Bennett said the “mean girls” were part of Cuomo’s efforts to instill division among his employees.
“Like his test is setting up someone in a position where they’re being abused by the people around him and not just directly from him,” Bennett testified.
Bringing the receipts
When she was promoted to executive assistant, Bennett said an outgoing staffer told her she’d be expected to buy Cuomo coffee and not be reimbursed.
Bennett provided investigators with 20 Dunkin Donuts receipts she said she saved because, “I was angry and thought it was wrong, and also just wanted a record of how much money I was spending on this endeavor.”
Bennett said the receipts, totaling $61.02 from May 2019 to February 2020, reflect just some of the times she bought Cuomo coffee. She said she’d usually hand her credit card to a driver who would go pick up the order.
“I had an entry-level salary and I was spending money for the Governor of New York,” Bennett told investigators.
“Do you love me”
In his testimony, Cuomo denied Bennett’s claim that he once sang The Contours song “Do You Love Me” to her.
“I don’t even know that song,” Cuomo said in the July deposition.
In August, along with its investigative report on Cuomo, the attorney general’s office released a recording of Cuomo singing the song to Bennett.
In the recording, an awkward moment passes before Cuomo realizes that the much-younger Bennett doesn’t know the song.
“It’s like, the ‘50s,” Cuomo said on the recording. “It’s before even my time.”
Occasionally, Cuomo appeared to give his interrogators a hard time for sport.
Asked if it was true he told a woman in his office she looked like one of his ex-girlfriends, Cuomo went on to debate Kim over four pages of testimony about the definitions of “date” and “girlfriend.”
“Do you understand what a girlfriend is?” Kim asked.
“Well, girlfriend means different things to different people,” Cuomo said.
Sisak and Beaty reported from New York.