The walls are closing in on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Powerful state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called for her fellow Democrat’s resignation on Sunday after two more former aides came forward alleging inappropriate conduct by the governor, including one who accused Cuomo of making an unwanted sexual advance in a Los Angeles hotel room more than two decades ago while she worked for him as a paid consultant.
Stewart-Cousins’ decision to join a growing number of state Democratic lawmakers pushing for Cuomo, who has repeatedly denied inappropriately touching anyone, to step down upped the pressure on the three-term governor as his grip on the state capitol he has ruled for a decade appears to be slipping. Cuomo on Sunday again said he would not resign, but in breaking from the governor, Stewart-Cousins further escalated the stand-off and put renewed focus on Sens. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the US Senate, and Kirsten Gillibrand, as the state’s Democratic hierarchy considers how to respond to the persistent stream of accusations.
Schumer on Sunday refused to say whether Cuomo should resign, but again expressed his confidence in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ probe into the allegations.
“I have a lot of faith in her,” Schumer said. “I believe that she will turn over every stone and I believe she will make sure there is no outside interference.”
Cuomo said in a news conference shortly before Stewart-Cousins released her statement that he would not step down, suggesting that to do so before the conclusion of the attorney general’s investigation – a process that could take months – would be “un-democratic” and a denial of due process.
But Stewart-Cousins, who had previously said Cuomo should resign if another accuser came forward, had seen enough. In a statement provided to CNN Sunday, she questioned whether the governor could effectively lead the state in the midst of twin scandals – one surrounding sexual harassment allegations and another focused on his office’s handling of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes, which erupted after James’ office found that the state had systemically undercounted deaths among residents in the facilities.
“For the good of the state Governor Cuomo must resign,” Stewart-Cousins said.
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, also a Democrat, echoed Stewart-Cousins’ concerns in a tweet, calling the allegations against Cuomo “deeply disturbing.”
“We have many challenges to address,” Heastie continued, “and I think it is time for the Governor to seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York.”
Stewart-Cousins called Cuomo Sunday morning less than an hour before his hastily announced press call to inform the governor that she could no longer support him and planned to call for his resignation, according to a source briefed on the conversation.
According to the source, Cuomo told the leading lawmaker that she should listen to the press call – during which he told reporters he wasn’t resigning.
“There are some legislators who suggest that I resign because of accusations that made – are made against me. I was elected by the people of the state. I wasn’t elected by politicians. I’m not going to resign because of allegations,” Cuomo said on the press call.
On Monday, James announced that former acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon Kim and employment discrimination attorney Anne L. Clark will lead the investigation.
Calls growing for resignation
Despite the protests of the governor and his top aides, the chorus of big-name New York Democrats calling for his ouster is growing. State Sens. Rachel May and Liz Krueger echoed Stewart-Cousins. Also on Sunday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer joined two other mayoral candidates, Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia, who had previously said Cuomo should resign. Stringer urged the legislature to begin impeachment proceedings if he did not. Mark Levine, a New York City councilman who chairs its health committee, also said Cuomo should leave office.
On Monday, state Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, along with several other Democratic female members of the Assembly, did not call for Cuomo’s resignation but instead urged James’ investigation be allowed to take its course.
Stewart-Cousins’ statement came less than 24 hours after former aide and consultant Karen Hinton came forward, in a Washington Post report published Saturday, to accuse the governor of inappropriate conduct.
Hinton was working as a consultant to Cuomo when, she told CNN on Sunday, he invited her to his hotel room during a trip to Los Angeles. Inside, Hinton said, Cuomo asked her about her marriage and related personal questions, before embracing her, which made her feel “uncomfortable” and prompted her to stand up to leave.
“I thought it was too close for too long and I felt that it was too intimate, and I could tell he was aroused, and I pulled away,” Hinton said, adding that she “didn’t aggressively pull away.”
“I just walked away like, ‘It’s time for me to leave,’ and he pulls me back and I said, ‘No. I’m really sleepy. I’m going to go back to my room,’ and I left, and we never spoke about it again,” Hinton alleged.
Peter Ajemian, Cuomo’s director of communications, denied Hinton’s claims in a statement to CNN, saying, “This did not happen.”
“Karen Hinton is a known antagonist of the Governor’s who is attempting to take advantage of this moment to score cheap points with made up allegations from 21 years ago. All women have the right to come forward and tell their story — however, it’s also the responsibility of the press to consider self-motivation. This is reckless,” Ajemian said.
“Every woman has a right to come forward. That’s true. But the truth also matters. What she said is not true,” the governor said addressing the allegations.
A friend of Hinton’s, who spoke with CNN on the condition of anonymity, said Hinton called her after what the friend called, “the hotel incident.”
“She called me, and she just said you won’t believe what just happened,” the friend said, adding that Hinton told her Cuomo had given her a hug and was aroused and it “freaked her out.”
Hinton stood by her claim in a statement to CNN after Cuomo’s remarks, comparing him to former President Donald Trump.
“Truth is the ‘longtime adversary’ that Cuomo fears the most,” Hinton said. “Trump may be gone but Cuomo has stepped right into his shoes by blaming the abused for his own abusive behavior.”
Former staffers describe demanding work environment
Several former staffers for the governor who spoke to CNN on the condition they not be named to protect against future reprisals offered different accounts of what it was like to work for Cuomo. None of the former staffers said they directly witnessed sexual harassment by the governor.
A woman who worked for Cuomo described a culture in which having one-on-one time with Cuomo or riding on his plane was “seen as a badge of honor.”
“It’s something that staff would aspire to get to do,” she said.
One former female aide who constantly traveled for events for the governor said staffers would “do anything to not be the target of his or any of his top people’s, you know, wrath.”
“You definitely wanted to fly under the radar enough so that you weren’t, but you wanted him to notice you so that you could, you know, get ahead,” she said.
A former male staffer in the executive chamber said he was “not shocked or surprised” by the recent negative headlines coming out about Cuomo. He still keeps in touch with some former colleagues and says there’s a level of shock they’re experiencing because Cuomo seemed untouchable.
“We’re all like ‘what the hell’ because we never thought that, you know, from what we witnessed last year, at the height of Cuomo’s fandom that in a year that we would be here at this point, watching the demise of probably one of the most powerful political figures in New York State.”
One male staffer who worked for Cuomo for several years, however, said he never saw Cuomo act inappropriately around staff and was shocked to hear the allegations.
“He always tried to mentor, individuals that he felt he could, but I don’t think that mentorship was anything predatory. I think that he just approached it differently with different people,” the staffer said.
Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, defended the governor’s behavior.
“There is no secret these are tough jobs, and the work is demanding, but we have a top tier team with many employees who have been here for years, and many others who have left and returned,” Azzopardi said. “The Governor is direct with employees if their work is sub-par because the people of New York deserve nothing short of excellence.”
Hinton’s account followed those of a series of other women, including one who only met Cuomo at a wedding in 2019, who have accused the governor of inappropriate behavior.
Ana Liss, another former staffer, told The Wall Street Journal in a report published on Saturday that the governor “asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk.”
During Sunday’s news conference, Cuomo said his interactions with Liss were comparable to others he’s had with dozens of employees over several decades and added, again, “I never meant to make anyone feel unwelcome in any way.”
“If customs change, then I’ll change the customs and the behaviors,” the governor said. “But I never meant to feel – make anyone feel any uncomfortable.”
The firestorm, which has consumed New York politics over the past 10 days, began on February 24, when former aide Lindsey Boylan alleged in a Medium post that Cuomo kissed her on the lips against her will in 2018 after a brief, one-on-one meeting in his New York City office. She also wrote that, a year earlier, he suggested they “play strip poker” during a flight on a small plane from an event in Western New York.
Cuomo press secretary Caitlin Girouard denied the account, saying, “Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false.” (Girouard has since confirmed she is leaving Cuomo’s office for the private sector but said that decision predated both the release of the nursing homes report and any public allegations of sexual harassment.)
Days later, Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former executive assistant and health policy adviser to Cuomo, first told the New York Times that the governor had asked her a series of personal questions and said he was open to relationships with women in their 20s.
“I thought, he’s trying to sleep with me. The governor is trying to sleep with me. And I’m deeply uncomfortable and I have to get out of this room as soon as possible,” Bennett said in an interview with CBS News.
Bennett has also said she reported the incident to Cuomo’s chief of staff and was subsequently moved to another position, across the Capitol from the governor’s office. Her attorney, Debra Katz, sent a letter Friday to the attorney general calling for all documents and notes of conversations related to her client’s complaint to be maintained “without alteration.”
Cuomo denied the allegations in a statement released shortly after the initial Times report, saying he believed he had been acting as a mentor and had “never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate.”
On March 1, another woman, Anna Ruch, came forward to accuse Cuomo of making an unwanted advance toward her after they met at a wedding in 2019.
Ruch told the Times she thanked Cuomo for his toast to the newlyweds before he placed his hands on her lower back, which was exposed by her dress. The governor then, in an account verified by Ruch’s friend, whom CNN is not naming due to concerns the friend expressed over their professional life, put both hands on Ruch’s face asking if her could kiss her.
Cuomo during a news conference last week apologized for making people uncomfortable but denied making any inappropriate physical contact.
“I never touched anyone inappropriately,” Cuomo said in his first public remarks addressing the scandal. “I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable.”
CNN’s Brynn Gingras contributed to this report.