This story has been updated.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) sexually harassed 11 state employees in violation of state and federal law and retaliated against at least one employee for coming forward, state Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday after a months-long investigation.
“The independent investigation found that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, many of whom were young women, by engaging in unwanted groping, kisses, hugging and by making inappropriate comments,” James said at a news conference.
“Further, the governor and his senior team took actions to retaliate against at least one former employee for coming forward with her story, her truth,” James added, referring to Lindsey Boylan, a former aide who alleged in an online post in February that the governor sexually harassed her, and whom the governor’s aides and advisers retaliated against by leaking her confidential personnel file to reporters covering the allegations, according to the 165-page report James’s office released Tuesday.
After the Tuesday news conference and release of the report, Cuomo released a 14-minute-long video denying the allegations against him and showing a series of photos of Cuomo embracing people, and other politicians, including President Biden and Vice President Harris, doing the same. Cuomo also said in the video that he had supported a family member who had experienced sexual assault in the past. “The facts are much different than what has been portrayed,” he said in the video.
When James — the first Black woman to be the state’s attorney general — announced the findings of the investigation, she focused on the systemic nature of workplace sexual harassment, alleging that “Governor Cuomo’s administration fostered a toxic workplace that enabled harassment and created a hostile work environment where staffers did not feel comfortable coming forward with complaints about sexual harassment due to a climate of fear and given the power dynamics.”
The report also included the governor’s testimony to investigators, and investigators’ analysis of the culture of “secrecy, loyalty, and fear of retaliation” that allegedly made sexual harassment possible. James’s office also released a more-than-200-page appendix containing some of the more than 74,000 pieces of evidence investigators allegedly reviewed, including texts, emails and other documents.
Shortly after the release of the attorney general’s report, Gov. Cuomo’s lawyer, Rita Glavin, released an 85-page position statement rebutting the findings of the investigation, characterizing them as “unfair and inaccurate” and refuting the allegations of seven of the 11 accusers included in the attorney general’s report.
Experts and advocates for sexual harassment prevention in the workplace characterize the attorney general’s focus on the broader workplace culture as crucial to framing and understanding how sexual harassment can proliferate.
“Workplaces that are toxic and abusive in other ways are also workplaces that are at particular risk of sexual harassment,” said Emily Martin, vice president of education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “If you’re working in a place where bosses have absolute power to be tyrants and everybody expects that, and being subject to various sorts of abuse is just thought of as what you do in that workplace, that is an open door to sexual abuse happening.”
At the Tuesday news conference, James stood in solidarity with the women who came forward with their allegations: “I am inspired by all the brave women who came forward, but more importantly, I believe them and I thank them for their bravery,” she said.
“The fact that Tish James is doing her job and immediately they’re saying, ‘Oh, she’s just trying to take Cuomo’s job’ — no, she’s a lawyer … she’s doing what she swore to the citizens of New York what she said she’d do,” said Greer, who also co-hosts “FAQ NYC,” a podcast about New York news and politics.
Greer also noted that James follows Eric Schneiderman as New York attorney general, after he resigned in May 2018 following physical harassment accusations from four women, published in an investigation by the New Yorker. That history, Greer said, points to a problem with “the culture of Albany,” the state capital, where women describe sexual harassment as pervasive.
For Danielle Makia, a New York-based 2019 law school graduate, seeing James announce the results of the investigation was “profoundly inspiring” as a young Black woman in law, she said.
“Seeing her in this position, firstly, is tremendous just because … Black women are severely underrepresented in the legal profession,” said Makia, 30, who works as a compliance associate at a financial company.
As she watched James’s announcement, Makia couldn’t help but think of Anita Hill — a Black woman law professor whose credibility was called into question after she testified against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, claiming he sexually harassed her.
“Years later, now we’re seeing a Black woman attorney general leading the charge in bringing justice for sexual harassment victims,” Makia said. “Seeing that is incredibly moving.”
Following the investigation, a slew of politicians have called for Cuomo’s resignation, including President Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and three House Democrats from New York. State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) also said Cuomo could no longer remain in office, and added that state lawmakers will move forward “expeditiously” with an ongoing impeachment investigation.
If Cuomo were to resign or be impeached, he would be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who would become the state’s first woman governor in history.
James’s support for the accusers also stood in stark contrast to the retaliation that the report notes at least one accuser faced from within Cuomo’s office after speaking out, according to Latifa Lyles, vice president for advocacy and survivor initiatives at Time’s Up Now, the advocacy organization founded in the wake of the #MeToo movement that aims to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. (The president and chief executive of Time’s Up, Tina Tchen, consulted with the organization’s co-founder, lawyer Roberta Kaplan, on a letter the governor’s office drafted following Lindsey Boylan’s accusations, according to James’s report. In a statement, Tchen denied giving advice directly to the governor or his team and reiterated the organization’s commitment to supporting survivors.)
“That potentially has the most chilling effect, when people … do come forward and it is very obviously not a safe choice,” Lyles said. “It further damages their career, their experience, and retraumatizes them, and that sends a very strong signal both to survivors and other potential abusers in that community that safety is not really the goal.”
And the fact that the report notes that women were involved in the retaliation against Cuomo’s accusers — including Melissa DeRosa, a top aide — shows the ways in which harassers can both implement a top-down culture of silence and recruit women to take part, according to Greer, the political scientist.
“I always say it’s not just men who uphold the structure [of patriarchy]. … They rely on women as co-conspirators, but also they rely on the silence of their victims to perpetuate this behavior,” Greer said.
The investigation shows the importance of employers instead creating “an environment, a system, a culture, and very specific steps that people can take when they are in fear and when they believe they’ve been assaulted or harassed,” according to Lyles. Time’s Up Now estimates that up to 85 percent of women in the United States have experienced sexual harassment at work.
Lyles added that “there should be both a process and a culture that allow for accountability, transparency, and justice for the survivors.”
While sexual harassment training and policies might be an important part of that process and culture, the attorney general’s investigation also shows the limits they face if workers don’t take them seriously, Martin and Lyles said. The investigation notes that an aide for the governor admitted to signing a 2019 sexual harassment training attestation form on Cuomo’s behalf after the governor allegedly reviewed the training material, both Cuomo and the aide claimed, and that 2019 was the only year since 2013 that Cuomo allegedly took the training, even though the state employee handbook requires annual sexual harassment training for members of the governor’s office.
Other members of the office interviewed by investigators, including more junior staffers in particular, “did not recall the contents of any trainings on sexual harassment,” the report notes, adding that “several Executive Chamber staff members reported not knowing how to report an allegation of sexual harassment.”
That shows how “training is one of the tools in the tool belt, but we also know that there are people that can use the existence of training and policies as a check box. It’s not enough for a variety of reasons,” according to Lyles.
“Where you see success,” Lyles added, is where harassment training is “integrated” into company culture and performance metrics.
The success of the attorney general’s investigation in bringing to light these multilayered challenges facing accusers — including a culture of silence maintained by a fear of retaliation — shows the importance of such investigations, Martin said. “Nongovernmental employers can also, and should, have such investigations when important people in their workplaces are accused of wrongdoing,” she said. “It really shows the importance and power of having a neutral arbiter look at the facts and make a transparent report.”
But such investigations do not always take place. Martin pointed to recent reports about the FBI’s acknowledgment that it received thousands of tips — most of which were not investigated further — following decades-old sexual assault allegations that Christine Blasey Ford made against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his nomination process in 2018.
Tuesday “is a counterpoint to that, of what a meaningful investigation looks like,” Martin said.
In addition to welcoming independent investigations, employers can “shift the burden internally” so that discipline of an employee who makes a sexual harassment complaint is “subject to multiple layers of review … and there will be a burden on the supervisor to demonstrate the need for such [discipline],” Martin added.
For employees who find themselves experiencing sexual harassment, Martin recommends they start keeping notes “about what happened, who was there, what was said, what time it was.”
“That [information] is still very important and powerful even if you don’t have smoking gun evidence from another person,” she said.
Martin also recommends people experiencing sexual harassment seek legal advice, which they can access through the National Women’s Law Center Legal Network for Gender Equity, which offers a free initial meeting with a lawyer for legal advice over sex discrimination at work, school or when getting health care.
“It’s good to know what your options are, what your rights are, how the law protects you,” Martin said.
The attorney general’s investigation of the allegations against Cuomo should serve as a model for other attorneys general offices, and employers, across the country for how to respond in the wake of sexual harassment complaints, Martin said: “We as a culture would do well to make sure that that happened more often when powerful people are the subject of these sorts of allegations.”