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Cuomo, in remarks, redefines sexual harassment

Governor Cuomo's office


Gov. Andrew Cuomo fueled new controversy Thursday over sexual harassment allegations against him when he sought to redefine the definition of sexual harassment in state law during a question-and-answer session with reporters in the Bronx.

Cuomo is accused of kissing and hugging women without their permission, and in one instance, groping under a female aide’s shirt. He has admitted that he also said things to female staffers, including questions about their dating habits, that might have made them uncomfortable.

The governor was asked at a news conference whether he would acknowledge that those actions violate the state’s anti-sexual harassment laws, a statute that the governor signed.

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Cuomo said he does not believe that fits the definition.

"Harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable," he said. "That is not harassment. If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that is not harassment. That's you feeling uncomfortable."

His remarks drew a response from the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group of women who say they experienced sexual harassment while working in the state Legislature. They said the governor’s defense of his actions would be “laughed out of court.”

Charlotte Bennett, who accuses the governor of creating a hostile work environment and of grooming her for sex, said in a tweet that “the issue is about his actions, it is not about my feelings."

Bennett’s lawyer, Debra Katz, in a statement, said Cuomo’s ignorance of the law is “truly alarming." She said the law is “very clear.”

“If an employer makes unwelcome jokes, comments, asks probing questions of a sexual nature or makes unwanted sexual propositions -- which is exactly what Gov. Cuomo has already admitted to having directed toward my client, Charlotte Bennett -- that employer has violated New York state law. There is no gray area here,” Katz said.

Katz said according to the New York State Equal Employment Opportunity Handbook, sexual harassment is defined as follows:

"Actions that may constitute sexual harassment based upon a hostile work environment may include, but are not limited to, words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation or physical violence which are of a sexual nature, or which are directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex. Sexual harassment also consists of any unwanted verbal or physical advances, sexually explicit derogatory statements or sexually discriminatory remarks made by someone which are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, which cause the recipient discomfort or humiliation, or which interfere with the recipient’s job performance."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.