By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) – A New York State trooper said Governor Andrew Cuomo ran his hand from her belly to her hip as she held a door open for him. An executive assistant described the governor reaching under her blouse and grabbing her breast. Another aide said he complained to her during the pandemic that he was lonely and “wanted to be touched.”
Eleven women detailed their interactions with Cuomo for a civil investigation into the governor’s behavior by the New York Attorney General’s Office made public on Tuesday. They painted a picture of a governor who made sexually explicit comments and intimidated women without fear of reprisal.
Their testimony represents the latest chapter in the #MeToo social movement that has shaken up Hollywood, politics, business and the workplace, exposing the toxic environments that women have endured at the hands of men long protected by power, money and the veil of secrecy.
State Attorney General Letitia James’ 168-page report concluded that Cuomo had sexually harassed state employees and members of the public, and that the executive chamber had fostered a “climate of fear” which kept many women from coming forward and allowed the egregious advances to continue.
Cuomo defended his actions to both the investigators and the public. In televised remarks on Tuesday, he denied the sexual harassment accusations and said his physical interactions with accusers were part of his long, well-meaning tradition of showing warmth through touch. His office also posted online what his lawyer called a position statement on the allegations against him.
The report by James’ office, however, said the governor’s denials “stood in stark contrast to the strength, specificity and corroboration” of the accusers’ recollections.
In interviews with investigators, several women described a workplace where women’s looks were subject to comment, and playful teasing and touching were condoned. They recalled their mounting unease as Cuomo’s behavior progressed from sexually explicit remarks to unwanted touching.
Many expressed embarrassment and fear of speaking out, not wanting to tarnish their careers or reputations. They spoke of the emotional pain they endured from being physically violated at the hands of one of the country’s most prominent politicians.
One former Cuomo aide said even though she knew the governor’s behavior was strange and uncomfortable, she felt the rules dictating appropriate conduct did not apply in his office.
“It was the twilight zone,” she told investigators.
Charlotte Bennett, another former aide to Cuomo, told investigators the governor made several inappropriate comments to her in 2020. When Bennett told Cuomo that her experience of being sexually assaulted in college was part of her motivation for working in politics, he pressed her for details about the assault and said, “Some people have it much worse.”
In other conversations, he asked whether she had been with older men and said he had been lonely during the pandemic and “wanted to be touched.”
In a June 2020 conversation, Bennett said, the governor told her she should get a tattoo on her butt instead of her shoulder, and he pressed for details about her dating life. In a text to a friend afterward, she said the conversation left her upset, confused and shaking.
She reported the incident to the governor’s chief of staff and special counsel and quit a few weeks later.
The lengthy statement from Cuomo’s lawyer on Tuesday said Bennett had misinterpreted what the governor viewed as a “paternalistic and mentoring relationship” with her.
A state trooper assigned to Cuomo’s security detail was one of several women who accused the governor of inappropriate touching. She said he traced his finger from the back of her neck down her spine in an elevator on one occasion, saying “hey, you.” Another time, he placed his hand on her lower stomach at a security event in Long Island in 2019 as she held a door open for him, she said.
The trooper told investigators she was creeped out but felt helpless.
“I felt completely violated,” she said.
An executive assistant recalled Cuomo asking to take a selfie with her in his office at the Executive Mansion on New Year’s Eve in 2019 and said he then grabbed her butt cheek and rubbed it for “at least five seconds,” according to the report.
The assistant said Cuomo had ordered her not to share the photo with anyone, and she told a colleague at the time that she was scared to report the incident and possibly lose her job.
Nearly a year later, in November 2020, the same executive assistant was called to the governor’s mansion. Cuomo led her into a room, closed the door, slid his hand under her blouse and cupped her breast over her bra, the report said.
“At the moment I was in such shock,” the executive assistant testified. She pulled away from the governor and said to him, “You’re crazy,” according to the report.
Cuomo denied the accusation, saying in his testimony, “I would have to lose my mind to do such a thing.”
The Albany County district attorney said the findings regarding Cuomo’s conduct would be reviewed as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.