Updated: August 8, 2021 11:17:40 am
Written by Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram
Two summers ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stared into a camera, signed a bill and made a promise to the women in the state. “Let’s actually change things,” he said, underscoring each word of resolve with a chop of his hands as he approved sweeping new protections against sexual harassment.
The next day, he resumed his unwelcome pursuit of a female state trooper, according to a report released last week by the state’s attorney general. “Why don’t you wear a dress?” he asked her Aug. 13, 2019, the report said. A month later, she told investigators, Cuomo ran an unwanted hand across her belly.
The complaints against Cuomo can seem dully familiar in the #MeToo era: another set of stories about awkward come-ons and young women scared of speaking up, this time set in Albany. But just as the world was waking up to the predations of powerful men several years ago — with New York City as the epicenter of the wrongdoing — Cuomo used the state’s highest office to commit fresh offenses, according to the report. All the while, he publicly aligned himself with the #MeToo movement, enhancing his reputation and generating campaign cash.
Of the 11 women that the report described as victims of Cuomo’s harassment, at least eight said they experienced it after early October 2017, when the revelations about sexual misconduct by producer Harvey Weinstein broke. About that time, Cuomo asked a young aide named Lindsey Boylan to play strip poker, she said. In November 2017, as the tide of accusations against other men rose, Cuomo targeted the state trooper, asking for her to be assigned to his detail, the report said. From there, it claimed, he moved on to offenses that included groping. The three-term Democrat has denied that he “touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” and suggested that the attorney general’s investigation was politically motivated.
During that period, Cuomo not only made it easier for New Yorkers to bring forth sexual harassment claims, but approved legislation lengthening the statute of limitations for rape. As he boasted of those accomplishments at news conferences and public events, he surrounded himself with powerhouse feminists such as actress-activists Mira Sorvino and Julianne Moore. He allied himself with leaders of Time’s Up, the gender-equality organization started in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, and leaned on them for advice as he later fended off allegations.
He also pointed a finger at other men being held to account. “No one is above the law,” Cuomo said in a statement in May 2018, after several women accused Eric Schneiderman, then the state’s attorney general, of sexual violence. He urged the official to resign.
The governor’s reputation was “Andrew Cuomo, your Number One feminist friend,” said Alexis Grenell, a former aide who has written about her disgust at Cuomo.
So if a high-ranking politician can ignore changing social standards, flout new rules as soon as he passes them and use #MeToo for his own protection as he allegedly violates women, where does that leave the quest for progress?
This past week’s report by the attorney general was meant to be a meticulous investigation into the governor’s actions. But as its full weight sinks in, it is also taking on a second role: as a road map to the limits of what has been achieved since 2017. Workplace sexual misconduct persists. Victims still don’t have effective, safe ways to report. And even major shifts in the law may not be enough.
“It’s not just about toughening the laws,” Anita Hill, who introduced the term sexual harassment to many Americans three decades ago, said in an interview. “You also have to change the mindset of people who may believe that they’re above the law.”
Lining up the allegations in the report against Cuomo’s public record also shows the degree to which #MeToo can be exploited. In March 2018, Slate reported, Cuomo sent out a fundraising email with the subject line “NY Stands with #MeToo.” The message touted “a new campaign to capture the momentum of the #MeToo movement and turn it into action” and concluded with a warning: “If you continue to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment, this November your #TimesUp!”
By that autumn, according to the report, Cuomo was inviting the trooper for a private tour of the executive mansion.
Cuomo’s Albany milieu remained an almost perfect setup for perpetuating and hiding misconduct, the report says. Nearly all power in the executive branch was concentrated in his hands or held by loyal subordinates. Although his office had annual sexual harassment training, Cuomo testified that he could recall doing that only once, in 2019. Many employees had no idea how to make complaints, and retaliation was a constant threat.
“You see people get punished and screamed at if you do anything where you disagree with him or his top aides,” Alyssa McGrath, an aide who accused Cuomo of ogling her, told investigators.
In the four years since #MeToo swept the globe, corporations have become far more sensitive to sexual misconduct, lawyers and activists say. Women seem increasingly vocal, especially about backing up one another’s accounts. And activists have pushed to strengthen laws across the country. But almost no one thinks the original problem has abated.
“I do not think there has been a diminution of sexual harassment at all,” said Debra Katz, a lawyer who represents Charlotte Bennett, one of Cuomo’s accusers.
The governor’s conduct — signing a law one day, allegedly violating it the next — shows how long it can take for even robust legislation to acquire force.
“Activism that is just about getting laws on the books is just not enough,” Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, said in an interview. Because little changes without a shift in social attitudes, “comprehensive sex education” — and teaching people about consent from a young age — “is more important than passing new laws.”
The Justice Department is investigating whether U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and violated sex-trafficking laws from 2018 to 2020. As recently as 2019, top executives of the Washington Football Team, formerly known as the Redskins, were accused of groping, among other offenses. The former CEO of McDonald’s got in trouble for sexual relationships with subordinates during the same period.
Even in the pandemic year of 2020, with workplaces closed, the volume of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dipped only a little. Katz added that the pandemic had given rise to new forms of abuse: bosses who make creepy phone calls or unwelcome visits to the homes of female subordinates.
“I still get claims from people who work at companies where several people have gotten outed,” said Mariann Wang, a New York lawyer who represents two of the governor’s accusers.
One of the most striking aspects of the allegations against the governor is how they nearly remained secret. One woman initially “intended to take her experiences of harassment by the governor ‘to the grave,’” the report says. That only began to change when Boylan on Twitter publicly accused the governor of harassment. She later said she spoke up because Cuomo had been mentioned as a candidate for attorney general in the Biden administration — a prospect she found alarming.
In one instance, he may have even used his image as a fighter for women to groom a victim. Bennett, a former executive assistant in Cuomo’s office, has said that he fixated on her experience as a sexual assault survivor in college before making advances on her. She “gave him the benefit of the doubt because of who he was publicly,” said Katz, her lawyer.
Now women who believed in that image have been left feeling betrayed. “He has a cloud of illegality, sexism and misogyny hanging over his head, and the thing that is most upsetting: He was a vocal and aggressive and effective advocate for women and girls,” said Christine Quinn, a past speaker of the New York City Council and onetime ally of the governor’s. “Was it all just a show?”
Time’s Up has worked extensively with Cuomo to pass legislation. Those accomplishments are significant, but “it feels like we were being used as cover now,” said its CEO, Tina Tchen, who has come under criticism for her involvement with the governor.
Burke said she had never had extensive dealings with Cuomo but felt for other advocates who had. “A lot of people don’t realize how much our work is at the mercy of these men,” she said, adding, “If I have the ear of the lawmaker who can make change, I’m going to align with this person.”
But Time’s Up’s leaders did more than work with Cuomo on legislation.
After Boylan raised the first public accusations of harassment, the governor’s office went to work on discrediting her. Roberta Kaplan, the Time’s Up chair and co-founder of its legal defense fund, in consultation with Tchen, shared feedback on an op-ed letter aimed at smearing Boylan. (The letter was never published.)
Now Kaplan and Tchen are accused of being swept up in what the attorney general’s report calls “unlawful retaliation” by the governor’s aides against a victim. And in interviews, several sexual assault survivors questioned why the Time’s Up leaders were advising the governor on his response at all.
The two women said they cautioned Cuomo’s office not to go on the attack. “I did not sign off on anything,” Tchen said in an email. Both said that they and Time’s Up would “continue to fight for, support and empower women,” as Kaplan put it in a statement.
But the prominent lawyer is still in an awkward position. Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to the governor who investigators said led the charge against Boylan, is represented by Kaplan’s firm, and she testified that Kaplan was her own lawyer in the attorney general inquiry. Asked if she ever counseled DeRosa beyond the op-ed letter, Kaplan said: “Since my firm has represented Ms. DeRosa, I can’t discuss advice given to a client.”
Hill, who for years has pushed the government to conduct sexual harassment inquiries with clear protocols, pointed to one hopeful outcome in the Cuomo saga: The attorney general’s report was a “proper investigation,” she said.