Inside Cuomo’s ‘Hotel California’ for Albany Aides: You Can Never Leave
As the governor fought sexual harassment allegations, some former employees who went to the private sector still worked privately for him — reportedly helping craft media strategies and discredit some of his accusers. Here’s why.
Some left Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s employment months ago. Others quit years back.
Yet as the three-term Democrat and his senior advisors fought sexual harassment allegations against him, some former aides who have gone on to private sector jobs still worked privately for the governor — reportedly helping craft media strategies to defend his reputation and discredit some of the women who accused him.
As former communications director Dani Lever told investigators working with state Attorney General Letitia James: “Everyone sort of jokes that the governor’s office is like ‘Hotel California.’ You never really leave.”
Lever, who now works at Facebook, declined to comment.
The high-profile resignations in less than 24 hours of a top Cuomo lieutenant and a leading liaison between the governor and the #MeToo movement were all the more newsworthy for their public break with the embattled governor, who faces impeachment proceedings and calls for resignation in the wake of James’ report.
Several former administration officials, all of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by the governor and his staff, described to THE CITY how hard it is to detach from Cuomo’s orbit.
They cited the governor’s power and reach, even extending into the private sector.
Some Cuomo administration staffers have been told they simply couldn’t leave their employment with him. Others saw job offers vanish once the governor and his aides caught wind, former employees recounted.
“It’s very difficult to leave, and so the way to leave is to not really leave and just stick around somehow,” said one former administration official.
‘Get Along or Kill’
Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, resigned Sunday night, sending shockwaves through New York political circles. Her break with Cuomo could signal more to come in the wake of the 168-page report released by James’ office Aug. 3.
The report detailed how administration officials past and present worked to leak confidential personnel records of one former aide, Lindsey Boylan — acts described by investigators as amounting to illegal retaliation.
“What would lead a group of people who have successful careers otherwise to get into the trenches for the kind of rough and tumble we’re seeing that Team Cuomo has engaged in the past few months?” Peter Kauffmann, a political strategist who worked for Cuomo’s campaigns in 2010 and 2014, told THE CITY.
“To that, it’s a mentality that is bred into the Team Cuomo culture that goes back to the philosophy of, ‘get along or kill.’ And ‘get along or kill’ is an operating mentality that permeates everything done when you’re on the payroll, and it extends to when you’re not technically on the payroll any more.”
“Get along [or] kill” was how Steve Cohen, a former top aide to the governor, once described how the Cuomo administration operated in a phone call to the office of Dan Malloy, then the governor of Connecticut, several years ago.
According to the attorney general’s report, Cohen was involved in advising the governor’s team on how to respond to the sexual harassment allegations, including helping to draft a letter aimed at discrediting Boylan that didn’t end up being published.
Cohen declined to comment for this story.
The Cuomo Alumni Network
Other former Cuomo administration staffers noted there was little downside, at least until recently, to maintaining a direct link to the most powerful elected official in the state.
“There’s going to be a moment when this free labor will rebound on you — he’s going to do something that makes it worth it. Perhaps in your professional career down the road…he’ll pay it forward,” one former official told THE CITY. “As long as he’s the governor, even if you’re outside and you stay close…you can still be brought in and still be relevant and still be empowered to do something important.”
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Cuomo brought in several former aides, including Cohen, Josh Vlasto, Rich Bamberger and Larry Schwartz, to pitch in with logistics and press during the crisis on a volunteer basis.
The AG’s report detailed how Schwartz, an MTA board member named the state’s “Vaccine Czar,” called county executives, who were depending on the state for resources, to test whether they thought Cuomo should resign based on harassment allegations.
On Monday, Schwartz told THE CITY he serves at the pleasure of the governor — and that he will stay at the transit agency as long as he’s wanted there.
“If the governor doesn’t want me to serve on the board, then I would leave,” he said.
But while those former hands worked in the spotlight, others toil in the shadows.
“Some top loyalists who do leave actually keep doing his bidding behind the scenes and benefit in some way,” said another former aide.
As Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny put it, “That Cuomo alumni network in and out of government has been crucial to his machine.”
‘Operating in Personal Capacity’
Vlasto and Bamberger, two longtime Cuomo confidantes, work as managing directors for Kivvit, the national public relations firm that’s secured millions of dollars in state contracts and attracted big-name clients.
As The New York Post reported, the company has made big bucks in recent years by overseeing roughly $88 million in media buys for the Office of General Services, the State University of New York and other state agencies.
The firm also has recently lobbied state officials on behalf of companies such as Tesla and Las Vegas Sands, according to state lobbying disclosures. Kivvit was among the lobbyists for the energy company Invenergy — which a state board last year approved for a $454 million project to build the state’s largest wind farm outside Buffalo.
“Any employee mentioned in the report was operating in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the firm,” a Kivvit spokesperson said in a statement. “Further, any state contract awarded to the firm was part of a public and competitively bid RFP process.”
Vlasto and Bamberger, who declined to comment for this story, discussed with Lever, Cohen, DeRosa and several others how to respond publicly to harassment allegations, according to the AG’s report.
‘Culture of Toxicity’
Former staffers said Cuomo knew how to dish just enough kindness and kudos to maintain the magnetism of his orbit — and that for some, the goal of breaking through the toxicity to reach the inner circle was viewed as a challenge worth taking.
“The odd part about these workplace stories…. It’s not even close to what it was really like to work there day to day…. It was so much worse,” Vlasto said in a series of messages the AG’s office released as part of evidence.
He indicated that the culture of the second floor, where Cuomo has his office, included “abuse and mind games.”
“But for me, it never really bothered me,” Vlasto wrote. “It was part of the deal.”
According to the attorney general’s report, Cuomo asked Vlasto to lead the “politics and press operation” in response to the sexual harassment alllegations, but Vlasto turned him down.
A former staffer described to THE CITY Cuomo’s “cycle of abuse, abuse, abuse — then there’s something really unexpected and nice…and then it’s abuse, abuse, abuse. And then he adjusts the cycle when he can see the cycle needs to be adjusted.”
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who previously worked for the Cuomo administration and became a vocal critic, acknowledged the same people were often subjected to and the perpetrators of the “culture of toxicity.”
“It really also is kind of like a mind game because sometimes the same people are told, ‘You did a great job,’ and then they’ll be yelled at in the next hour. So it makes you feel very destabilized,” she said. “You’re constantly seeking their approval, but also want to run away from them.”
A spokesperson for Cuomo did not return a request for comment.
Time’s Up Chair Leaves
The fallout from the AG’s report has been swift.
Shortly after the report was released, staff at the Washington D.C- based Human Rights Campaign held a contentious call with former Cuomo counsel Alphonso David, who heads the organization, calling for him to resign.
David, who served as chief counsel to the governor before joining HRC in 2019, provided the governor’s aides with a private personnel record for Boylan and worked to cajole support among other former staffers to a letter of support for Cuomo that was never released, according to the report.
HRC officials on Monday said the organization was hiring an outside law firm to conduct a 30-day “internal investigation” on whether “David’s actions aligned with HRC’s mission and values, as well as with professional and ethics standards.”
David, who is cooperating with the inquiry, said in a statement that he had “no knowledge of any incidents of misconduct” involving the 11 women who accused Cuomo of sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, Roberta Kaplan, a prominent lawyer and chair of Time’s Up — an organization born out of the #MeToo movement — resigned Monday over her involvement to discredit one of the accusers.
“Unfortunately, recent events have made it clear that even our apparent allies in the fight to advance women can turn out to be abusers,” Kaplan said in her resignation letter.
Kaplan cited her work as a practicing lawyer for why she couldn’t answer questions about her involvement with the Cuomo administration. Her law firm is representing DeRosa.
‘The Tragedy of Cuomo’
The unpaid outside advisors were provided with “confidential and often privileged information about state operations” even though they had no “formal role, duty or obligation to the state,” James’ report found.
“Loyalty and service to the governor were often expected to continue even after
employees had left the Executive Chamber and no longer had an official role there, with many former staff members being asked to assist the governor long after their departure from his administration and state government,” the attorney general’s report stated.
The problem with that arrangement, according to the report, was that staffers who considered reporting sexual harassment or other misconduct would know that the administration’s response was being handled by a group “whose overriding interest is in protecting the governor, over the interests of any potential complainant.”
Biaggi summed up what she called “the tragedy of Andrew Cuomo.”
“Everybody who gets close to him, in some form or another,” she said, “finds themselves in very unfortunate circumstances because that toxic work environment starts right at the top with him.”