Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been accused by a second former aide of sexual harassment, prompting both leaders from the state Legislature to support an independent investigation of the incident, with the three-term governor offering up his own review.
In an interview with the New York Times, Charlotte Bennett accused Cuomo of asking her inappropriate questions, in a signal that he wanted the relationship to become physical.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett told the Times. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”
The conversation happened while the two were alone in his office at the state capitol in Albany, according to Bennett, who worked as an executive assistant in Cuomo’s office.
That’s the same place where another former aide in the administration, Lindsey Boylan, also accused Cuomo of trying to kiss her. Boylan came forward with her claims earlier this week, but Cuomo has yet to directly address them.
But in a statement Saturday evening, Cuomo acknowledged Bennett’s claims, and said he didn’t intend to make her uncomfortable and wanted her to see him as a mentor.
“I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate,” Cuomo said. “The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported.”
Beth Garvey, special counsel to Cuomo, said the administration will immediately start a review of the incident. The investigation will be led by Barbara Jones, a former federal judge in Manhattan.
"Although in no way required by law, the Governor has requested an independent review and all staff will cooperate in that endeavor,” Garvey said. “Former Federal Judge Barbara Jones will lead the review."
In her interview with the Times, Bennett claimed that Cuomo, during their conversation, asked whether she’d ever had sex with older men and if her relationships were monogamous. He also told Bennett he wouldn’t mind being in a relationship with anyone above the age of 22.
Bennett said she felt that Cuomo was trying to have sex with her through the conversation, and expressed as much in communications with others that were verified by the Times.
She reported Cuomo’s behavior to his chief of staff, according to the Times, and later moved to a different job in the administration before leaving state government last year.
The new claims come after Boylan, the other aide, accused the governor earlier this week of offering to play strip poker with her, making inappropriate remarks, and trying to kiss her in his office at the state capitol.
Democrats who lead the state Legislature both said Saturday that, given the new claims, they would like to see an independent investigation into Cuomo move forward immediately.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, said she wanted to see a “truly independent investigation” into the claims, which could imply action from the Legislature, either in addition to or in place of the review launched by Cuomo’s office.
“The continued allegations are deeply disturbing and concerning. The behavior described has no place in the workplace,” Stewart-Cousins said. “A truly independent investigation must begin immediately.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, used the same language in a statement.
“As I previously stated, all allegations of harassment must be taken seriously,” Heastie said. “A truly independent investigation is warranted.”
Several lawmakers have called for a probe into the Cuomo administration since Boylan came forward with her story, but it’s unclear what that would look like.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a state body, could investigate either set of claims, but some have criticized the panel as soft on sexual harassment claims, and firmly in control of the Cuomo administration.
The Legislature could launch its own investigation into the matter, though lawmakers are still trying to figure out if they can do that within their own structure, or if they need to approve a new bill to allow the probe.
Sen. James Skoufis, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Investigations Committee, said the investigation should be conducted by an independent body outside JCOPE or the Legislature.
"In order to safeguard public confidence in the findings, neither the Executive nor the Legislature nor JCOPE can lead the inquiry,” Skoufis said. “The investigation must be completely independent of potential influence and politics."
Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt called the new claims “incredibly disturbing,” and rejected the investigation ordered from Cuomo’s office, saying a special prosecutor should be appointed.
“The review suggested by someone handpicked by the Governor himself, is an outrageous, completely unacceptable idea,” Ortt said. “We need a truly independent investigation, which is why I continue to support the calls of my colleagues for a Special Prosecutor appointed by the Attorney General.”
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a Republican who challenged Cuomo in 2018, said Cuomo should resign if an independent investigation confirms the claims from Boylan and Bennett.
"We start by believing these courageous women. There must be a serious independent investigation, victims heard, truth sought and justice served," Molinaro said. "If true, the Governor is not fit to serve. He must resign or be removed from office."
Cuomo is also under fire from Democrats in the Legislature over his administration’s decision to delay the release of data on COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes. That data, now released, has shown an additional 4,000 nursing home residents died from the virus than previously known.
Lawmakers are due back in Albany Monday, when they’ll likely continue talks on how to move forward.