Cuomo sends formal referral allowing Attorney General James to investigate misconduct claims

Denis Slattery for NY Daily News

Originally published in NY Daily News

ALBANY — Gov. Cuomo formally invited an inquiry Monday into damning sexual misconduct allegations made against him by a pair of former staffers, allowing New York Attorney General Letitia James to choose a private law firm to spearhead the probe.

An official referral letter was sent to James’ office a day after a whiplash-inducing round of competing statements were released by both offices about the scope and oversight of such an inquiry.

“Today, the executive chamber transmitted a referral letter to our office, providing us the authority to move forward with an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment claims made against Governor Cuomo,” James said in a statement. “This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously.”

As the investigation was formalized, one of the women who said she was harassed by Cuomo rejected an apology he issued claiming his comments were an attempt at being “playful.”

Former aide Charlotte Bennett said in a statement Monday that the 63-year-old governor had “refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior.”

“As we know, abusers — particularly those with tremendous amounts of power — are often repeat offenders who engage in manipulative tactics to diminish allegations, blame victims, deny wrongdoing and escape consequences,” she wrote.

Bennett has hired attorney Debra Katz, a high-profile sex discrimination lawyer who represented Christine Blasey-Ford when she accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, to represent her.

The results of James’ probe will be made public and the governor will not receive weekly updates about the investigation, which are allowed under current law.

The pair of powerful politicians publicly sparred Sunday after a second woman came forward with claims of sexual harassment against Cuomo over the weekend.

With a bipartisan chorus calling for an investigation, Cuomo initially proposed an outside “review” be conducted by a former federal judge with ties to a close ally of the governor.

Then, his office floated a second proposal that would have James and Chief Appellate Judge Janet DiFiore select an outside law firm to run an inquiry.

James said she would settle for nothing less than a formal request from the governor’s office allowing her full subpoena power and the authority to choose a firm.

“To clarify, I do not accept the governor’s proposal. The state’s Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral,” James said on Sunday.

Cuomo’s office eventually caved and agreed.

Calls for an outside probe grew after Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide came forward Saturday to allege the governor asked her inappropriate questions about her personal life, including whether she ever had sex with older men, and made comments she believes were meant as sexual overtures.

Just days earlier, another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, published a scathing essay accusing the governor of fostering a toxic work environment, touching her inappropriately and subjecting her to an unwanted kiss.

Cuomo’s lengthy statement Sunday denied that he inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone and apologizing if “some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”

Bennett said in her statement released Monday that the way New York’s most powerful Democrat has reacted to the accusations are not the “actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice.”

“All New York State employees have been directed to cooperate fully with this review,” Cuomo counsel Beth Garvey wrote in the referral letter to James, which was released by the attorney general’s office.

New York lawmakers, meanwhile, already considering rescinding Cuomo’s COVID executive authority due to controversies related to nursing home deaths, are eyeing an overhaul that would ensure the independence of the state’s top prosecutor and grant the office the authority to pursue investigations and conduct prosecutions without a referral.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Nassau) introduced a bill Monday that would significantly weaken the governor’s power over the attorney general’s office and avoid the back-and-forth seen over the past two days.

“It would allow the attorney general to operate as an independent entity, not have to ask anyone to begin a case, not have to report to anyone and not have to ask for resources to do the job it sets out to do,” Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, told the Daily News.

He also said the governor’s office’s offer to waive weekly updates may be moot since they are required under current law.

“I think it’s an open question as to whether that can go forward,” he said.