Sexual harassment allegations against Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Investigation report of Sexual harassment allegations against Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (New York)

Andrew Cuomo, the former governor of New York, had been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women starting in December 2020, when Lindsey Boylan, a former aide, publicly accused Cuomo of sexual harassment “for years”. Boylan detailed her accusations in a blog post, stating that Cuomo gave her an unsolicited kiss on the lips in his office, as well as repeatedly made “degrading” sexual remarks.

In February, another former aide, Charlotte Bennett, accused him of sexual harassment. While she did not allege any physical contact, she described “inappropriate” conversations initiated that involved questions about her personal life. She said those conversations were the governor “grooming” her for a sexual relationship.

Cuomo denied all allegations and has apologized for his comments being interpreted as sexually charged. On February 28, 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that she would hire and deputize a law firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations. In August 2021, Letitia James released an investigatory report which stated that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women during his time in office, with actions such as unwanted groping, kissing and sexual comments. The controversy surrounding these allegations culminated in Governor Cuomo’s resignation from the office.

Below is a detailed summary of the investigation launched by New York Attorney General Letitia James that concluded Governor Andrew Cuomo broke federal and state laws by sexually harassing women who worked for him.

This is the summary of the findings of the investigation authority which concluded that the sexual harassment allegations against Governor Andrew M. Cuomo is indeed true as each of the claims by the victims are sufficiently corroborated with adequate proofs collected from various witnesses as well as various contemporaneous conversations that took place between the victims and their acquaintances. This summary aims to provide a concrete understanding on how the investigation authority has reached at a specific conclusion which leads to the affirmation of the conduct of the governor.

1. Power conferred on the investigative authority

The office of the governor made a referral on March 1, 2021, to the New York State Attorney General (“NYAG”) to constitute an independent panel of lawyers to investigate the allegations and claims of sexual harassment against the governor. As a result of which the said investigation took place according to section 63(8) of the NY Executive law which confers wide range of powers to the investigating authority. Careful consideration was laid on maintaining the anonymity of certain employees who feared retaliation.

2. Allegations raised by each of the employees and the subsequent findings of the investigating authority

(i). Executive assistant 1-

  • Works at the executive chambers as an administrative assistant at the executive chamber.
  • Nature of the assault- physical advances, verbal taunts etc.
  • Regularly offering tight hugs, kissing on cheeks sometimes lips.
  • Referring to her and her friend ‘mingle mamas’ as a joke.
  • Extreme instance of sliding his hands under the clothes of the victim.
  • Making her the subject of several sexually suggestive remarks and comments.
  • Raising questions concerning the personal life of the victim and often indulging in conversations which made the victim uncomfortable as most of the comments had a sexual undertone such as “have you fooled around with someone other than your husband” etc.
  • The other remarkable incident which occurred was when she was asked by the governor to take a picture with him in a rather uncomfortable position and the subsequent request he made of “not letting anybody see this picture other than the friend of the victim” which is directly or indirectly a statement colored with threat and intimidation.

Governor’s take on the allegations- According to him he does not remember kissing the executive assistant on the lips as stated by the victim and further alleges that the victim is the ‘initiator of the hugs’ and even characterized the victim as an outgoing and flirtatious person.

(ii). Trooper 1 –

  • The trooper’s recruitment into the PSU (a police force that offers protection to the governor) was in itself a controversial one as she was randomly hired by the governor despite her not meeting the essentials requirements for the post which later when inquired was characterized as an act of “promoting more inclusivity” by the governor.
  • Nature of the assault- Physical and verbal.
  • Carried out an unwelcome act of running the fingers across the neck to the spine, blatantly asking “whether she could help him find a girlfriend”, asking whether he could kiss her etc. It is also inferred from the testimony of the victim that she received a message from her superior to keep the conversations “stays under the truck” which is a statement that could be considered as a threat.

Governor’s take on the allegations – He denied most of the allegations of the victim blatantly without even acknowledging anything that was stated by her.

(iii). Charlotte Bennett (name mentioned as this is public information)-

  • A former employee at the executive chamber. Her first role was as a briefer, which involved organizing and researching materials on relevant topics for the Governor.
  • Nature of the assault- mostly verbal
  • Taunting the victim on the fact that she was a sexual assault survivor.
  • Attempting to make an offer of going to the gym together.
  • Addressing her as the “bun” for several months following an argument with the victim etc.
  • Making her memorize the lyrics of the song “Danny boy” etc.

Governor’s take on the allegations – Other than denying some of the allegations, he stated that the victim was processing the information shared by the governor “in her own filter” referring to her past sexual harassment history.

(iv). Lindsey Boylan (name mentioned as this is public information) –

  • She was the first victim to come out with a tweet that suggested the inappropriate behavior of the governor; a former employee of the Empire State Development Corporation (“ESD”).
  • Nature of the assault- physical, verbal
  • He would casually touch her on the lower back, waist, and legs and ask whether she wanted to play strip poker etc.

Governor’s take on the allegations – Governor denied all the allegations but was allegedly cornered by the victim with respect to the allegations as she issued a public statement for the same which garnered a lot of attention.

(v). Alyssa McGrath (name disclosed as this is public information)-

  • Alyssa McGrath works in the Executive Chamber as an executive assistant, providing
  • administrative assistance to certain assigned staff members of the Executive Chamber and has been in that role since May 2018.
  • Nature of assault- Physical and verbal
  • She is of Italian descent, and he allegedly made statements to her in Italian which made the victim uncomfortable. One of the major instances is wherein the victim was asked to “bend over” to use the computer to search for car parts etc.

Governor’s take on the allegations – The governor admitted to having made a statement in Italian but denied the fact that he made any other statements which made the victim uncomfortable.

(vi). Ana Liss (name disclosed as this is public information)-

  • Ana Liss was an Empire State Fellow who worked in the Executive Chamber from about September 2013 to September 2015.
  • Nature of assault- Physical and verbal
  • Instances wherein there were physical advances made by the governor as in some of the cases mentioned above.

Governor’s take on the allegations – Governor claimed that he did not remember Ms Liss.

(vii). Kaitlyn (name disclosed as this is public information)-

Kaitlin is a former employee of the Executive Chamber. On December 12, 2016, Kaitlin attended a fundraiser for the Governor, which was hosted by Kaitlin’s employer at the time, a lobbying firm. Kaitlyn was one of the first persons who offered support to Ms Boylan after her tweet. The importance of this victim would be discussed in the next part of this summary.

3. Investigation officer’s reason for arriving at a particular conclusion

  • The conduct and demeanor of the victim while giving the testimony and the strong assertion of facts and detail were the reasons for the investigating authority to reach at a particular conclusion.
  • The governor’s conduct was corroborated by witnesses who observed his behavior on the victims along with that contemporaneous text messages send by the victims to their family members and acquaintances etc. are also the reasons for the authority to reach its conclusion.

4. Fear of retaliation of the victims

The victims have repeatedly stated in the testimonies that they feared retaliation from the governor in case of any disagreement on his conduct. Like mentioned before, the governor himself suggested to not send certain pictures to the world along with causing a hostile work environment wherein the “physically taunted” individuals were treated normally unlike the other workers who was constantly yelled at reprimanded. Many of the victims alleged that a job at the chamber was their dream job and they did not want to create an animosity against someone as powerful as the governor.

5. Ways of handling the claims by the executive chamber

The executive chamber (Office of the Governor which includes immediate staff that assists the Governor in managing State government) hatched elaborate plans to deal with the complaints by doing the following things-

  • Preparing the governor for the press conferences wherein they ensured that he appeared more “remorseful and sympathetic”.
  • Sending confidential information of Ms Boylan to her press shortly after her tweet along with making allegations to paint the victim’s character in a negative light.
  • Enquiring whether Kaitlyn (former employee of the chamber who offered support to Ms Boylan in twitter) was also closely working with Ms Boylan.

All of the officials of the chamber who were part of this plan did not expressly deny the claims instead they formulated good reasons to justify their actions. Most of them even suggested the unending loyalty that they had towards the governor as a reason.

Initially when one of the victims that is Ms Benett approached the executive chambers about her complaint; the officials seemingly after consoling the victim did not take any important steps such as sending the complaint to the GOER (the authority responsible for carrying out the investigation in cases of sexual assault) and subsequently took a rather niche step of transferring the victim to another department so that she would not maintain proximity with the governor.

6. No proper mechanism of addressing sexual harassment claims

  • None of the officials and employees is sure as to what exactly should be done when a sexual harassment claim is brought or to whom it should be made. No formal sexual harassment trainings were attended by the employees other than the one in 2019.
  • There were almost no instances wherein the cases were referred to the GOER instead the cases were handled between the team itself which shows that there is no proper enforcement mechanism in this workspace and ironically this place is where the state policies are determined.
  • The employee handbook clearly states that a complaint should be submitted to the GOER right after a supervisor receives a complaint even after a complainant refuses to do so.

7. Relevant laws

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the New York State Human Rights Law (the “NYSHRL”).

  • Gender based harassment

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; gender-based harassment refers to the conduct of the employers as was “sufficiently severe or sufficiently pervasive, or a sufficient combination of these elements, to have altered her working conditions”. Here there is one more point to note-

Sexual violence or advances are not necessarily to be shown by the plaintiff instead if the violations are those amounting to the discrimination based on the “sex of the plaintiff” then it can amount to gender-based harassment.

NYSHRL however has a significantly lower level of determining the existence of harassment; it simply states that “Liability is determined simply by the existence of differential treatment (i.e., unwanted gender-based conduct)”.

  • Employer’s liability

“Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for such harassment may depend on the status of the harasser.” If the harasser is an employee’s supervisor and the “harassment culminates in a tangible employment action” (e.g., a quid pro quo situation), “the employer is strictly liable”.

  • Executive chamber policy

The chamber policy concludes that any unwelcome gestures, jokes, pranks etc. and any derogatory statements which is discriminatory is directed to an individual based on their sex would be considered as gender-based harassment and no claims can be forgone to reach the GOER even if the victim insists so.

8. Retaliation

This is the most important element of sexual harassment cases in general and it has been repeatedly stated by the victims that they feared retaliation.

The following are the elements of retaliation-

  • Protected activity- opposition to a certain unlawful activity by the employer
  • The employer was aware of this activity- No specific requirement of proving the same by the employee as once the complaint is filed; it anyway reaches them henceforth.
  • The employer took adverse action- “harmful to the point that it could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination”. It extends to claims beyond the work as well like it can concern the personal details of the employee as well.
  • There is a casual connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.

The link or connection between the two facts should be established. The proximity should be such that it should visibly determine that the adverse action is a step which is aimed at discrediting the victim’s statement.

In the light of the above statements, it can be claimed that Ms Boylan was immediately subjected to retaliation. The fact that she left the chamber does not play a significant role here as the protection from retaliation is ensured to former employees as well. The confidential information concerning the victim was an attempt to paint the image of the victim as “someone who had several complaints against her pending”. Thus, this claim has been proved along with all the other claims.

9. The individual liability

The individual liability against a person can be adjudged in the following circumstances-

  • When there is a direct involvement in the violation.
  • The one who failed to remedy the wrong.
  • Contributed to the making of an unconstitutional policy or made allowed continuance of the same.
  • Grossly negligent in supervising the subordinates who carried out wrongful acts.
  • Failing to act on information received.

Under the NYSHL

The aider and abettor can also be held liable for facilitating the unlawful behavior and they should also have a specific intent, and this extends to those who are not within the circles of the employment.

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