Gov. Andrew Cuomo spent Sunday calling lawmakers to dissuade them from issuing statements calling for his resignation, even as more allegations of sexual harassment surfaced, several who heard from him told THE CITY.
Cuomo argued that such comments would undermine an investigation being readied by state Attorney General Letitia James, call recipients said. The phone pleas came shortly after state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) issued her own statement urging Cuomo’s resignation.
On Monday, James announced the investigation into the accusations would be co-led by a top former federal prosecutor with a history of tackling Albany corruption and a longtime employment discrimination lawyer.
Joon Kim, a former acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Anne Clark, a prominent employment discrimination lawyer, will spearhead the independent inquiry into Cuomo, who faces sexual harassment accusations from five women — including four former aides.
In a statement, James called the two lawyers “legal experts who have decades of experience conducting investigations and fighting to uphold the rule of law.”
“There is no question that they both have the knowledge and background necessary to lead this investigation and provide New Yorkers with the answers they deserve,” she added.
Prosecuted Cuomo Pal
Kim — a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who specializes in white-collar criminal defense and internal investigations — had previously served as the deputy under U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was fired in 2017 by then-President Donald Trump.
Kim succeeded Bharara as the acting U.S. Attorney for 10 months.
His knowledge of Albany runs deep. Kim was part of the team in the U.S. Attorney’s office that prosecuted former Cuomo aide and friend Joe Percoco on corruption charges. Percoco is currently serving a six year sentence in federal prison.
In addition, Kim served as Bharara’s chief counsel when the U.S. attorney investigated the sudden shutdown in 2014 of a commission Cuomo had convened to investigate Albany corruption. That probe did not find evidence of criminal malfeasance.
Kim and Clark — a partner at Vladeck, Raskin & Clark who has represented numerous plaintiffs in sexual harassment and employment discrimination cases — will be able to subpoena the governor, his aides and others for records.
They will be investigating allegations of harassment brought by former employees who have come forward accusing the governor of making sexually inappropriate remarks and in some instances touching them without permission.
As of Monday, three former Cuomo staff members — Charlotte Bennett, Ana Liss and Lindsey Boylan — had made such claims publicly. The investigators will not be limited to looking at those women’s allegations.
The private legal team will report weekly to the attorney general’s office, James said in a news release, with a final report of their findings ultimately to be released publicly.
A lawyer for Bennett said Kim and Clark’s appointment demonstrates that the attorney general’s office is “taking this matter very seriously.”
Bennett said in media interviews that she believed Cuomo was propositioning her for sex when he asked her intimate questions about her sex life last spring, including whether she would consider having sex with an older man.
“It is important that this investigation isn’t just centered around what Governor Cuomo said and did. It must also focus on the culture of secrecy, abuse and fear that he fostered among his staff — frequently in violation of the very laws he signed to protect workers from sexual harassment. We look forward to cooperating with the investigators,” Bennett’s attorney, Debra Katz, said in a statement.
While representatives for his accusers welcomed the investigation, Cuomo and his allies appear to be leveraging it for their own purposes — to buy breathing room for the beleaguered governor as demands for his resignation multiply.
As of Monday night, 16 out of the 43 Democrats in the state Senate, and 25 out of 106 in the state Assembly, had called for the governor to step down, according to a list compiled by members of Cuomo-critical Democratic Socialists of America.
The Sunday statement from Stewart-Cousins — the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the state Legislature — landed the most wounding blow yet to Cuomo, who is also being investigated for his handling of COVID-19-related nursing home deaths.
“New York is still in the midst of this pandemic and is still facing the societal, health and economic impacts of it. We need to govern without daily distraction. For the good of the state Governor Cuomo must resign,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Scramble for Support
According to several lawmakers who received calls from the governor, James and members of her office subsequently assured them that the investigation would continue — regardless of whether Cuomo remained in office.
On Monday morning, a draft statement from a close Cuomo ally in the Legislature began circulating through the inboxes and text messages of female Assembly members, who were asked to sign onto a letter insinuating that calls for governor’s resignation would “undermine” James.
Several female lawmakers are being asked to sign onto this statement circulating this morning. According to sources the idea originated from the Cuomo administration and insinuates that calls for Cuomo to resign would "undermine" the role of the Attorney General. https://t.co/CWsYmHj5er pic.twitter.com/kDBAOwia88— Josefa Velásquez (@J__Velasquez) March 8, 2021
“We support our attorney general, the first woman, and the first African American woman to be elected to this position, as she launches this investigation, and request she be allowed the appropriate time to complete her investigation,” a draft of the letter obtained by THE CITY stated.
“All calls to the contrary are premature and undermine her role and responsibility as the chief law enforcement officer of the state of New York.”
But those two sentences did not appear in the final version of the statement, signed by nearly two dozen female Democratic Assembly members from around the state.
Asked by THE CITY, the governor’s office denied it was involved in circulating the statement.
On a conference call with reporters Sunday afternoon, Cuomo was much less contrite than he had been earlier in the week, defiantly stating that he was “no way” he would resign.
The session was convened shortly after Stewart-Cousins phoned the governor to let him know that she would be issuing a statement later in the day calling for his resignation, according to people with knowledge of the conversation.
“The premise of resigning because of allegations is actually anti-democratic,” Cuomo told reporters.