Cuomo's handling of accusations may have violated harassment law

Michael Gormley for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s handling of two sexual harassment accusations against him may have violated a 2019 state law that requires such complaints to be thoroughly investigated.

That 2019 law created "model language" for "Sexual Harassment Policy for All Employers in New York State" in the public and private sectors. Cuomo called the package of law "the nation's strongest anti-sexual harassment laws" to "empower survivors and combat the scourge of sexual harassment and assault."

The law states in part: "All complaints or information about suspected sexual harassment will be investigated, whether that information was reported in verbal or written form … An investigation of any complaint, information or knowledge of suspected sexual harassment will be prompt and thorough."

But two state senators and an activist on the issue said it does not appear that an extensive investigation was completed in either case.

"You would expect that if the governor is going to tout the language as the toughest in the nation, that his actions would show it," said Erica Vladimer, co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group. "And he didn’t in either case."

In the first case, former Cuomo staffer Lindsay Boylan tweeted her sexual harassment accusation against Cuomo in December, after she left her state job. Cuomo denied the accusations the next day. The law, however, requires an investigation of all complaints, even those passed along to employers second hand or over Twitter, Vladimer said.

The second accusation was made public on Saturday in The New York Times. Charlotte Bennett said she had reported her sexual harassment accusation to a superior and she was offered and accepted a transfer to a different job.

"They had a conversation with her and that led to her being moved," Vladimer said, "but that doesn't mean you can forgo accountability measures in your office."

"No process was followed," said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who sponsored many of the state’s sexual harassment measures.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a former federal prosecutor, said whether the law was violated should be investigated. "The law was intended to change the culture in Albany," he said.

Cuomo's counsel, Beth Garvey, declined to comment until an investigation overseen by Attorney General Letitia James is completed.

Vladimer said what appears to be a lack of thorough investigations of the accusations also may have violated the executive branch’s employee handbook, which requires interviews and the immediate securing of emails and documents. The policy defines sexual harassment as including words and jokes "which are directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex." Cuomo has said his jokes and banter may have been misinterpreted.

The executive branch handbook from the state Government Office of Employee Relations states in part: "Human Rights Law now provides that even if a recipient of sexual harassment did not make a complaint about the harassment to the employer, the failure of the employee to complain shall not be determinative of whether the employer is liable."

If an employee refuses to complete a formal complaint, "the supervisor or other individual who received an oral complaint should file it in writing," the policy states. "Any complaint, whether verbal or written, must be investigated by GOER … Furthermore, any supervisory or managerial employee who observes or otherwise becomes aware of conduct of a sexually harassing nature must report such conduct so that it can be investigated."

Boylan took to Twitter on Dec. 13 after Cuomo’s name was floated as a possible candidate for U.S. attorney general in the incoming Biden administration. Cuomo "sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched," she said, among several tweets that weekend,

On Dec. 14, Cuomo denied the accusation: "It’s not true," Cuomo told reporters. "Look, I fought for, and I believe a woman has the right to come forward and express her opinion and express issues and concerns that she has. But it’s just not true."

On Dec. 21, Newsday filed for records of an investigation under the state Freedom of Information Law. Cuomo’s FOIL officer responded: "We are conducting a search for records that respond to your request and we will review them for application exemptions under FOIL. We will provide you with a status update on or before February 11, 2021." That response was delayed again until at least March 13.

Bennett's accusation against Cuomo surfaced Saturday in a Times story in which she was quoted as saying the harassment made her feel "horribly uncomfortable and scared."

Cuomo later released a statement that said, "Ms. Bennett’s initial impression was right: I was trying to be a mentor to her. I have never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate."

A third woman, Anna Ruch, told the Times Monday that she was "confused and shocked and embarrassed" when Cuomo touched her bare lower back and asked if he could kiss her at a wedding in 2019. Ruch had never worked for Cuomo, so the state law and polices aimed at workplace harassment wouldn’t apply.

But a private citizen can pursue sexual harassment claims not related to employment through the state Division of Human Rights, can pursue sexual harassment in housing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or through a private attorney or law enforcement based on civil and criminal laws against sexual harassment.