Interview transcripts offer window into Cuomo investigation

National
Andrew Cuomo

FILE – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, on May 27, 2020. New York’s Attorney General Letitia James, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, released hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews conducted during an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations that forced Gov. Andrew Cuomo from office last summer. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared pugilistic and paranoid at times during an 11-hour deposition, made public Wednesday, denying the sexual harassment allegations that forced him from office while ascribing political motives to the people investigating his behavior. His alleged victims, meanwhile, detailed a “toxic” workplace in the administration where they were subjected to crude remarks, creepy questions about their sex lives, hazing, and bullying.

New York Attorney General Letitia James released hundreds of pages of transcripts Wednesday of interviews two independent investigators did earlier this year with 10 of Cuomo’s accusers, plus the governor himself. Former acting U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, Joon Kim, and employment lawyer Anne Clark conducted the interviews.

They focused mostly on the serious allegations against Cuomo, including a claim that he groped an aide’s breast after summoning her to his office in 2020. But the interviews also produced odd moments and offered a window into Cuomo’s confrontational style. Here are notable moments from the many hours of testimony:

Show some leg

Several former employees testified in detail about Cuomo and other men on the staff speaking in a demeaning and disparaging way about women. Brittany Commisso, the aide who said Cuomo groped her at the executive mansion last year, said the governor would look her up and down and once asked whether she ever had sex with anyone other than her husband.

“He would make comments about if I wore a particular thing, how thin I looked,” Commisso said. “That I looked good for my age and being a mother.”

“When I wore a dress, he would comment about how it’s about time that you showed some leg.”

When she was promoted to be an executive assistant, former aide Charlotte Bennett bought heels to wear because colleagues made it clear that Cuomo expected it. “It felt like we had gone back a few decades in some ways,” Bennett said.

Cuomo said he may have referred to women on his staff as “honey, “sweetheart” or “darling.” “You know, one time in my life, ‘honey’ was a fine thing to say. ‘Darling’ was a fine thing to say,” he said. “It’s not anymore.”

Still, asked if he had regrets about anything he’s said to women in the workplace, Cuomo said, “No.”

Cuomo’s signature

At one point during his testimony, Cuomo suggested he’d given his office manager the authority to sign legislation into law on his behalf. Kim handed him a copy of a 2019 form that the governor had purportedly signed saying he had completed the state’s annual, mandatory sexual harassment training. Kim asked Cuomo whether the signature on the form was really his.

Cuomo said it might have actually been signed by his office director, Stephanie Benton. Cuomo said Benton could sign “virtually almost any document that comes across my desk,” including executive orders and checks. Sometimes she used an autopen machine that replicated Cuomo’s signature. Or, she just scrawled his name herself.

“I’m not asking about autosigning,” Kim clarified. “I’m asking about physically signing a document. Has Stephanie Benton physically signed bills for you, legislation?”

“She may have,” Cuomo said. Hours later, after prompting from his lawyer, Cuomo clarified that Benton only used the autopen device when signing legislation.

Cuomo acknowledged he didn’t take required sexual harassment training in 2020 or 2021, saying he was focused on the COVID pandemic. That contradicted what Cuomo told reporters last May, when he said he’d taken sexual harassment training “this year.”

Testy jabs

Cuomo took a confrontational tone with Kim and Clark, telling them their investigation was “biased” and “political.” He complained that he had referred the investigation to the attorney general on the condition she pick an “independent reviewer.” Kim’s selection, the governor claimed, was “a perversion” of that condition because, while a federal prosecutor, he had investigated the administration. And Cuomo said Clark had a “bias” because she works as an employment lawyer.

Cuomo also suggested Kim was a puppet doing the bidding of his predecessor in the U.S. attorney’s office, Preet Bharara, and “his rabbi,” Sen. Chuck Schumer. For the most part, Kim didn’t respond to the attacks. But at one point he asked Cuomo if he was looking for “negative information” about lawyers involved in the investigation.

“Well, what are you worried about, Joon?”

Occasionally, Cuomo appeared to give the interrogators a hard time for sport. At one point, he was asked whether it was true he’d told a woman in his office she looked like one of his ex-girlfriends. Cuomo countered by debating Kim, over four pages of testimony, about the definitions of “date” and girlfriend.”

“Do you understand what a girlfriend is?” Kim asked.

“Well, girlfriend means different things to different people,” Cuomo said.

‘Toxic’

Describing the culture in Cuomo’s office, former aide Charlotte Bennett said staff called to meet with Cuomo came in with dread and distress and would sometimes be in tears afterward. “It was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior, like surrounded by yes men—I’ll use that term—of this is what he wants, this is what he gets, and that mood and that anger or that fear of him suddenly becoming angry definitely ruled the office and then trickled down,” Bennett said.

The governor allegedly pounded his fist into a door in frustration and on another occasion told a top aide he was lucky he didn’t throw him out the window.

Cuomo and several of his former employees all testified about a nickname used around the office for his top aides: “the mean girls,” a group that included his hard-driving top adviser, Melissa DeRosa. Cuomo testified that he was aware of the moniker, but dismissed it as a “silly gossipy thing” that a former male staffer came up with. Cuomo has also argued that it’s sexist to portray successful female employees as “catty.”

Bennett said the “mean girls” were part of Cuomo’s efforts to instill division among his employees. “His test is setting up someone in a position where they’re being abused by the people around him and not just directly from him,” Bennett testified.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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