New York governor Eliot Spitzer: seven days from sex scandal breaking to resignation. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman: one day from sex scandal breaking to resignation. New York governor Andrew Cuomo: five months and six days since sex scandal allegations…and still in office.
There are a multitude of differences in the substance and circumstances of the three cases. But the central contrast—that Cuomo remains in his job—is the important one, and all the more remarkable considering that multiple accusations of sexual harassment are hardly the only battle the current governor is fighting: Cuomo is also being investigated for allegedly juggling the number of pandemic nursing home deaths and for having state employees help him write a pandemic “leadership” book for which he will reportedly receive $5.1 million. (He has denied all wrongdoing in all cases.) The combination of crises provoked a glut of high-profile stories detailing Cuomo’s nasty side; his public approval numbers sank from 71% in spring 2020 to 38% in early March 2021.
And here we are at the end of July, with Cuomo still in power. That, all by itself, is a big win for the governor. A key part of his strategy last spring, when he was taking a media and political beating and calls for his resignation were piling up, was to appear to be focusing on his public duties, to play for time, and to allow the scandals’ momentum to fade. Which has worked, in the short run. His daily pandemic press conferences stockpiled public goodwill, and Cuomo’s base—older, more conservative, and more forgiving on workplace issues than New York’s progressive Democratic wing—has largely stuck with him.
Now, though, a turning point looms. State Attorney General Letitia James has been probing the sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo since early March, and last week the governor reportedly sat for a deposition—a clear sign that the investigation is nearing its end. There’s also the fact that Joon Kim and Anne Clark, the outside attorneys hired by James to conduct the probe, are on a contract that ends September 7. Extensions and delays are always possible, of course. But Cuomo’s camp is acting a bit twitchy, a sign that it thinks the end is in sight. When the Times broke the news Cuomo was about to testify, his spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, blasted the report, taking a shot at James’s objectivity and insinuating that James, a fellow Democrat, is gunning to become governor herself: “the continued leaks are more evidence of the transparent political motivation of the attorney general’s review.”
Anyone in Cuomo’s inner circle decrying politics is pretty funny, given that the governor does nothing without calculation. His attempt to paint James’s investigation as politically compromised, however, got an assist from James herself: Kim previously worked as a top deputy to former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, a longtime Cuomo nemesis. “Joon is very good, and he will follow the facts,” a New York prosecutorial veteran says. “But Tish could have chosen another capable lawyer and deprived Cuomo of this critique. Bringing Joon on board handed him this opening to claim political bias.”
Two of the main episodes James is investigating are well known. Lindsey Boylan, a former aide, says the governor invited her to play strip poker and planted an unwanted kiss (Cuomo has denied the accusations). Charlotte Bennett, also a former aide, says Cuomo asked her a series of crude questions about her dating history; Bennett told the Times she believed the governor was “grooming” her for sex (Cuomo has apologized for any remarks that may have offended women). One Cuomoworld operative, however, is more worried about a murkier allegation: that the governor summoned a third female aide to his residence by claiming he needed help with his cell phone, only to grope the woman (Cuomo has said he’s never touched anyone inappropriately). “That’s the episode where there was supposedly the most physical contact, and it’s the one we know the least about,” the operative says.
Cuomo himself, an associate says, isn’t particularly anxious about the impending results because there were no surprises when he was questioned by Kim and Clark. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that James’s report won’t contain damning new information. The attorney general has access to text messages and emails among the governor’s staff. Those exchanges might be exculpatory, or they might back up portraits of a toxic work environment that enabled the governor’s behavior. (A Cuomo spokesman and a lawyer for the governor did not return requests for comment.)
Criminal charges against Cuomo would, of course, be the most devastating outcome. Even short of that, however, he is likely to face a test: Instead of instinctively punching back hard against a report that criticizes him, can Cuomo summon the grace to admit he made mistakes? Spitzer didn’t make it to the end of his first term as governor; Schneiderman imploded near the end of his second term as A.G. Cuomo wants to run, in 2022, for a fourth term in Albany. James’s report will go a long way toward determining whether he’ll get the chance.
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