Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York is confronting one of the most tumultuous moments of his three terms in office after two women who once worked for his administration accused him of sexually harassing them.
Under immense public and political pressure, the governor's office asked the state attorney general to appoint someone to conduct an outside investigation into the sexual harassment claims against Cuomo, a Democrat.
On Sunday evening, Cuomo issued an apology of sorts, saying, "I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.
"To the extent anyone felt that way," he said. "I am truly sorry about that."
The deepening scandal marks one of the lowest points of Cuomo's tenure and has thrust his political future into uncertainty, as he faces renewed scrutiny over his administration's decision to withhold data on nursing home deaths during the pandemic.
Here's what we know so far.
Ex-aide says Cuomo asked about her sex life
Charlotte Bennett, 25, a former aide to the governor, accused him of sexually harassing her last year, telling The New York Times that Cuomo, 63, had asked her about her sex life and whether she had ever had sex with older men.
Bennett, who left the administration in November, described one instance in which, when she was alone with the governor in his state Capitol office, Cuomo asked her if she thought age made a difference in romantic relationships, remarks she took as overtures to a sexual relationship.
"I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared," Bennett told The Times. "And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job."
Bennett said she reported the interaction with the governor to his chief of staff and was transferred to another job. She also provided a lengthy statement about the episode to a special counsel to the governor. The Times corroborated Bennett's account through interviews with friends and family members she told about the incidents at the time and a review of contemporaneous text messages and emails.
In a statement Saturday, Cuomo described Bennett as a "hardworking and valued member" of his staff and said he respected her "right to speak out."
"I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate," he said.
Another woman said the governor 'kissed me on the lips'
Bennett's accusations came only a few days after another former administration aide, Lindsey Boylan, elaborated on previous sexual harassment claims that she had lodged against the governor.
Boylan, who worked for the state's economic development agency from 2015-18, published an essay Wednesday in which she detailed several years of uncomfortable interactions with the governor.
Boylan, who said her boss at the time told her that Cuomo had a "crush" on her, said the governor went "out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs." In October 2017, during a flight back from an event in western New York, Boylan said Cuomo told her they should "play strip poker." And in 2018, she said Cuomo gave her an unsolicited kiss after a one-on-one meeting in his Manhattan office.
"As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips," she wrote. "I was in shock, but I kept walking."
The governor's office said Boylan's claims were false and did not call for an independent review of her allegations.
Boylan, who is running for Manhattan borough president, first publicly accused Cuomo of sexual harassment in December, but did not specify details.
After Bennett went public with her accusations, Boylan called on Cuomo to resign.
"His abuse of power never ends," she wrote. "He does not get to choose his judge and jury. We do."
The governor said he 'meant no offense'
Cuomo, who has not held a news conference in a week, said he would not comment on the allegations beyond the statement he issued Saturday following the Times' story about Bennett's accusations.
By Sunday evening, however, following a torrent of criticism, Cuomo issued a lengthy written statement in which he lamented making "playful" jokes and teasing employees in what he thought was "a good-natured way."
"I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married," the governor said. "I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business."
Cuomo, however, said he never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone, but that he understood, in hindsight, that his interactions "may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended."
There are calls for an impartial investigation
Cuomo initially said in a statement that he would direct "a full and thorough outside review" of Bennett's accusations, and named a former federal judge, Barbara Jones, to lead the inquiry. That move quickly met backlash, as critics questioned the integrity of his review and the judge's close ties to one of the governor's longtime advisers.
The governor's office backtracked by the next morning, saying it would instead ask Letitia James, the state attorney general, and Janet DiFiore, the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, "to jointly select an independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation to conduct a thorough review of the matter and issue a public report."
Cuomo's first attempt to rectify the situation, however, did not quell criticism: James and top Democratic state officials said the governor's new plan still did not go far enough.
In a statement, James said she did "not accept the governor's proposal," saying her office should be the one to lead the investigation. Under state law, she said, her office had to receive an official referral from the governor's office to conduct a review with subpoena power.
"While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task, per executive law," she said. "The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted."
By Sunday evening, the governor's office effectively said it would grant James' request for a referral and ask her office to designate a private lawyer as a "special independent deputy attorney general" to conduct the investigation.
Political backlash is bipartisan
Elected officials across the spectrum have condemned Cuomo and called for an impartial investigation into both women's allegations, while some Democrats have joined many Republicans in demanding the governor's resignation.
The Democratic leaders from both chambers of the state Legislature said in statements that the claims merited "a truly independent investigation." Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor, who would succeed Cuomo if he were to step down, also called for an independent review, saying, "Everyone deserves to have their voice heard and taken seriously."
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said during an interview with CNN that President Joe Biden supported an independent investigation into claims made by both women.
"It was hard to read that story, as a woman," she said of the Times' story about Bennett's experience.
Members of New York's congressional delegation, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, also called for an investigation.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican from Long Island, said Cuomo was "trying hard to dodge a truly independent investigation" and that "even Cuomo himself must know it's time to go."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who recently disclosed she was a survivor of sexual assault, said the claims from both women were "extremely serious and painful to read."
"There must be an independent investigation," she wrote on Twitter. "Not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General."
This is not the only scandal Cuomo is facing
The sexual harassment claims come as Cuomo is under fire over the state's coronavirus response in nursing homes, with federal prosecutors investigating the matter and state lawmakers considering stripping the governor of his pandemic-era powers.
The governor is facing allegations that his administration covered up the full extent of nursing home deaths following comments made in private earlier this month by one of his top aides, Melissa DeRosa, who admitted to withholding nursing home data.
A day after The Times disclosed Bennett's allegations, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York called for independent investigations into both the sexual harassment allegations and coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.
"New Yorkers have seen detailed, documented accounts of sexual harassment, multiple instances of intimidation, and the admitted withholding of information on the deaths of over 15,000 people," de Blasio, a Democrat, said in a statement.
"Questions of this magnitude cannot hang over the heads of New Yorkers as we fight off a pandemic and economic crisis," he said. "It's clear what must now take place."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2021 The New York Times Company