ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10/WIVB) — Sexual harassment allegations, a federal investigation, and accusations of strong-arm tactics are just a few of the things the Cuomo Administration is currently dealing with. In just a few short months, Cuomo has gone from widespread praise and rumors of a presidential run to being the subject of sexual harassment allegations and calls for resignation.
Criticism, which a short time ago was only coming from his most hardened detractors, is now bipartisan and approaching universal. That’s not to say that the Cuomo Administration had been free of controversy in the lead up to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo earned a “Teflon” reputation for his ability to be unharmed by scandal. A 2018 investigation showed that Cuomo had reinterpreted an executive order banning New York’s governor from receiving donations from gubernatorial appointees. Cuomo allegedly collected nearly a million dollars from 24 of his own appointees, plus $1.3 million from their spouses, children, and businesses.
Cuomo was accused of using $140 million—including a reported $40 million in federal disaster relief—to promote New York tourism in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. A Politico story from 2014 connected Cuomo to the creation of the Independent Democratic Conference which disrupted his own party’s legislative powers.
In 2014, Cuomo’s office was the subject of a federal investigation after it disbanded the Moreland Commission, a group charged with investigating corruption at the Capitol. Two years later, Cuomo faced the fall from grace of Joseph Percoco and the “Buffalo Billion” scandal. Percoco, once considered a member of Cuomo’s inner circle, was ultimately convicted in 2018 for accepting bribes.
COVID outbreak begins
In early 2020, Cuomo began broadcasting his daily press conferences detailing his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic began in China but soon spread to Europe, and eventually made its way to New York. Although it did not have the first recorded case of the virus in the U.S., New York quickly became the epicenter of the disease.
Cuomo’s insistence on a “science-based” approach garnered praise. He implemented lockdowns, social distancing regulations, and mask mandates in an attempt to halt the diseases spread. His stately, calm presentations and contrasted with the less traditional leadership approach of fellow New Yorker, President Donald Trump. Still, he faced criticism for Medicaid cuts amid the pandemic.
According to the left-leaning publication the Intercept, Cuomo held the legislature “hostage” to push the Medicaid cut through the 2021 budget, “even though doing so would mean forfeiting $6.7 billion in federal aid.” The new budget also rolled back progressive bail reform measures that went into effect in January, as well as cutting education funding across the state.
This, along with criticism of the talent pool in the Democratic primaries led to suggestions of a possible 2024 presidential run. There was also talk of a place as Joe Biden’s Attorney General following the November 2020 elections. Cuomo dismissed both suggestions, insisting his place was in New York.
He made jovial appearances alongside his brother, Chris, on CNN where they argued about who was their mother’s favorite and the younger Cuomo mocked the Governor’s nose with props like a large cotton swab.
A book about his experience handling the pandemic was released, and in November he was given an Emmy award for his “use of technology to spread reliable information and tell citizens what to do.” Billy Crystal called him “the epitome of New York Tough.” Rosie Perez called him “the man.”
In the background when all this was taking place, seasoned critics of the Governor were referencing a Department of Health (DOH) guideline issued in March that required the return of recovering COVID-19 positive nursing home residents to skilled nursing facilities from hospitals.
Among them was Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, a consistent and public critic of Cuomo, who claims to have resisted the order despite pressure from Cuomo’s office. It was also criticized by elder care organizations, including the AARP. The AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel said:
“It is absolutely horrifying and cries out for action. Governor Cuomo has shown tremendous leadership during this pandemic by ensuring hospitals were and are prepared to handle the influx of infected New Yorkers; now he needs to show the same leadership to help the long-term care system,”
The order was eventually reversed on May 10, but the brewing nursing home scandal did not end there. Legislators and elected officials alike pushed for greater transparency when it came to nursing home death figures. In early July, the DOH released a 33-page report on nursing home figures.
In early August, the Empire Center—a right-leaning economic think tank—filed a Freedom of Information Law request for nursing home data. Later in August, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) requested nursing home data from states like New York, whose COVID orders may have affected deaths at nursing homes. Then, in mid-September, the Empire Center sued DOH over their nursing home records.
A legislative hearing on nursing home deaths began on August 3. But the consensus among the public was the Governor was handling the pandemic well. Criticism, for the most part, came from business owners who were struggling due to the restrictions the governor had imposed. When it came to nursing homes, visitation—or a lack of it—was arguably more of a talking point than deaths.
Amid the pandemic, Cuomo also used public safety as a reason to cancel the Democratic primary—essentially disenfranchising progressive voters—over the summer of 2020. A lawsuit representing Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders and Capital Region native Andrew Yang ultimately ensured the primary would happen as scheduled.
Before the spotlight finally fell on the nursing home deaths, another scandal would break. On December 13, former aide Lindsay Boylan tweeted the Governor had “sexually harassed” her for years. “I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks,” Boylan wrote on Twitter. “Or would it be both in the same conversation? This was the way for years.”
Details were scarce beyond the tweet, and Governor Cuomo denied all of the allegations saying, “Look, I fought for and I believe that a woman has a right to come forward and express her opinion and express issues and concerns that she has, but it’s just not true.”
On January 25, 2020, another scandal broke. Attorney General Letitia James issued a report criticizing the state’s reporting of COVID-19 related nursing home deaths and the focus shifted. Attorney General James claimed the number of deaths in nursing homes was “misleading” and could have been undercounted by as much as 50%.
Cuomo and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker were in the firing line. New scrutiny of the March 2020 order that forced COVID patients back into nursing homes also began. The governor lost a number of court battles, including one from Empire Center for Public Policy and Senator Jim Tedisco who were seeking the release of nursing home data.
“Why should it take a report from the Attorney General for the state to release the number of nursing home residents who died in a hospital, which is a number that we’ve been looking for for quite a while?” asked Chris Hovartis from NEWS10 sister station in Buffalo at a COVID breifing.
Zucker replied, “When they said there was undercounting, that’s just factually inaccurate. Reporting the number of deaths is always the hardest number to report out there, and we wanted to be sure that those numbers were accurate.”
Before the Attorney General’s report had been released, the state had only reported the number of deaths of people who had died while in the facilities.
In response to why it took the time it did to release the nursing home data, Democratic legislative officials met with Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa in a closed-door meeting. A transcript of the secret meeting emerged, wherein DeRosa apologized to lawmakers for withholding the state’s nursing home death toll from COVID-19. She blamed fear of the Trump DOJ.
The New York Post reported that Derosa said:
“Basically, we froze. Because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we give to you guys, what we start saying was going to be used against us, while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.”
February also saw Democratic lawmaker Ron Kim coming forward to say Cuomo had threatened to destroy his career if he pushed for an investigation. New York’s Supreme Court also ordered the release of DOH nursing home data to the Empire Center.
In late February, Boylan published an account of the alleged sexual harassment. Days later, another woman accused Cuomo of sexually harassing her. In the New York Times, Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former health policy advisor, said the governor asked her if she was monogamous and asked if she “had ever been with an older man.”
The day after these allegations came to light, Gov. Cuomo released a statement on the allegations he is facing, saying his words and actions “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
“I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married,” Cuomo said. “I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.”
As the month began, Cuomo was already taking heat from all sides regarding both nursing home deaths and unwanted touching. Prominent Republicans and Democrats on the national, state, and federal level went on record, pushing for impeachment, investigations, or Cuomo’s resignation. After scuffling with Attorney General James about the selection of independent investigators—with Cuomo at first pushing for a trusted member of his own circle to take the lead—he ultimately deferred to her jurisdiction.
Another report from the New York Times said a third woman was accusing Gov. Cuomo of inappropriate behavior. Anna Ruch, 33, said that at a 2019 wedding reception, Cuomo put his hand on her bare lower back, and she removed it. Following this, Ruch claims he said she appeared “aggressive.” Ruch says Cuomo subsequently asked if he could kiss her and put his hands on her cheeks.
Next, the Washington Post published a story that followed interviews with more than 20 former staffers. Many people alleged that the governor created an uncomfortable working environment. One of those staffers was former Cuomo aide Karen Hinton.
Hinton said Cuomo “summoned her to his hotel room and embraced her twice—the second time after she had already pulled away—during an uncomfortable encounter when he led the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and she was a public relations consultant for the agency.
Ana Liss, a 35-year-old former policy and operations aide to the Governor and current Monroe County employee, spoke with the Wall Street Journal. She says Cuomo “asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk.”
According to a report by the Times Union, a sixth woman has made an allegation against Gov. Cuomo. The woman, whose name was not published, says Cuomo inappropriately touched her while she was working at the Governor’s Mansion late last year. The Times Union says she is a member of Cuomo’s executive chamber staff.
The following day, March 10, the paper revealed the extent of the woman’s allegations: She reportedly alleges Cuomo “reached under her blouse and began to fondle her” while they were alone in the governor’s mansion in late 2020, according to the article. The woman was reportedly asked to the mansion to help Cuomo with a technical issue on his cell phone. Cuomo denied the allegation.
After another blistering report from the Times Union, this one about the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge—renamed by Cuomo after his late father, a former New York governor—legislators started calling for a federal investigation. At issue was not only the structural integrity of the bridge itself, but the allegation that a cover-up put completing the project ahead of safety. The lawmakers who want to investigate these allegations say they want to find out whether Cuomo was involved in the conspiracy.