New Yorkers must decide how disqualifying Andrew Cuomo’s behavior has been
After months of investigation conducted by seasoned lawyers who generated many pages of sworn testimony and pored over relevant documents, New York Attorney General Leticia James has issued a stunning report concluding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has committed acts of sexual harassment in violation of state and federal law. The report is so devastating in its conclusions that President Biden immediately called on Cuomo to resign as did other top Democrats.
Cuomo’s conduct is alleged to have included “frequent flirtations,” “gender-based comments,” “unwelcome and nonconsensual touching” and “comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women.”
Many of Cuomo’s accusers are faceless. James anonymized them because, she said, they feared retaliation. Cuomo in sworn testimony denied the most serious allegations but admitted enough to hang onto his political career by his fingernails.
In this post-Trump era, it might be tempting to dismiss the James investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt.” It might be tempting to say that James wants him out of the way because she would like to be the Democratic nominee for governor in 2022. She would have a good profile for the job. She is an African American woman who has bravely stood up to the Goliaths Donald Trump, the NRA and now Andrew Cuomo. And her probable opponent would be the Republican U.S. representative from Long Island Lee Zeldin, a dyed in the wool Trumpist.
But James’s 165-page report was damning, its conclusion ruinous:
“[We] have reached the conclusion that the Governor sexually harassed a number of State employees through unwelcome and unwanted touching, as well as by making numerous offensive and sexually suggestive comments. We find that such conduct was part of a pattern of behavior that extended to his interactions with others outside of State government.
“We also find the Executive Chamber’s response to allegations of sexual harassment violated its internal policies and that the Executive Chamber’s response to one complainant’s allegations constituted unlawful retaliation. In addition, we conclude that the culture of fear and intimidation, the normalization of inappropriate comments and interactions, and the poor enforcement of the policies and safeguards, contributed to the sexual harassment, retaliation, and an overall hostile work environment in the Executive Chamber.”
James’s findings paint a sad picture of the 63-year old divorced governor, who would obviously like a fourth four-year term. His iconic father, Mario, served three terms as New York governor, and sons like to achieve beyond their fathers. Andrew Cuomo also wants to run on an enviable record of civic accomplishment. His bullying nature succeeded in pushing through in commendable time the Second Avenue subway and the renovation of LaGuardia Airport. His displayed calm and steady leadership of New York through the COVID-19 pandemic. He was elected chair of the National Governors Association, a majority of whose members are Republican. In April 2020, he had a record 77 percent favorability rating.
There are weaknesses in the James report. Some of what was investigated and reported on did not involve women who worked for Cuomo. Other alleged misconduct involved commenting on a female subordinate’s hair or her appearance or her clothing. Then there was an alleged grope under the blouse, the pats on the fanny, the unwanted hugs or moving in for a kiss on the cheek. The most serious conduct, involving unwanted touching, Cuomo denies.
So far, there’s only been hearsay interviews and a one-sided ex parte investigation and report, with no chance to get Cuomo’s side of the story. The grounds for resignation of a governor should be made of sterner stuff.
Barring impeachment proceedings, unless Cuomo steps down now or at the end of his term, the only court will be the court of public opinion. New Yorkers will have to decide how disqualifying is the conduct of the governor who in so many respects has served them well in office.
James D. Zirin is a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.