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Cuomo Is Told to Preserve Records at Issue in Sexual Harassment Inquiry

The directive came as Mr. Cuomo faced a new accusation that an aide had completed the sexual harassment training he was required to undergo for him.

Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, will soon choose an outside investigator to lead an inquiry into sexual harassment claims against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Credit…Kathy Willens/Associated Press
  • March 5, 2021

ALBANY, N.Y. — As she closes in on the selection of an outside investigator to examine claims of sexual harassment against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state attorney general has asked members of his administration to safeguard any records germane to the inquiry.

The request was confirmed on Friday by a spokeswoman for the attorney general, Letitia James.

The move to seek the preservation of documents and other potential evidence is standard protocol in investigations, though such inquiries do not typically involve a governor. It underscores the intense scrutiny that has enveloped the Cuomo administration in recent weeks as it battles the sexual harassment claims and a separate controversy over its handling of data related to nursing home deaths linked to the coronavirus.

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that senior aides to Mr. Cuomo had rewritten a crucial Health Department report last July, omitting a full count of how many such deaths there had been in the state.

The elision allowed the governor to claim a more successful response to the pandemic, an assertion that now seems in question. The governor’s office has argued that the omission merely involved not including data that had not been adequately confirmed.

On the issue of the sexual harassment allegations, a spokesman for the governor, Richard Azzopardi, said on Friday that the administration had received the request for information earlier this week. “We received this request March 1 and our counsel’s office acted promptly and notified all chamber staff of their obligations associated with that,” he said.

Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat who won national acclaim as a leader amid the pandemic, has seen his public persona tarnished over the past six weeks as a result of a series of troubling revelations and reports about his behavior, both professional and personal.

Three women have come forward since last week to accuse the governor of making unwanted advances. One of them, Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide, told The New York Times that Mr. Cuomo, 63, had asked her intensely personal questions of a sexual nature during a June meeting in his Capitol office.

In an interview with CBS News that was broadcast over two nights this week, Ms. Bennett also said she had overheard one of Mr. Cuomo’s aides — Stephanie Benton, his director of governor’s offices — telling the governor that she, Ms. Benton, had completed his sexual required harassment training for him. Ms. Bennett said Ms. Benton had treated it as a joke.

Mr. Cuomo, who introduced the training standards in 2018, said at a news conference on Wednesday that he had completed the sexual harassment training. On Friday evening, a lawyer for the governor’s office denied Ms. Bennett’s assertions about Ms. Benton’s remarks.

“Some state employees take an online course,” said Beth Garvey, a special counsel to the governor. “For executive chamber senior staff, the training takes the form of personal review of documentation. The governor did this review of the mandated material and completed the training.”

Ms. Bennett went public with her accusations against Mr. Cuomo in interviews with The Times just days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, published a lengthy essay in which she detailed her own sexual harassment allegations against the governor, including that he had given her an unsolicited kiss in his Manhattan office in 2018.

Ms. Boylan, 36, is a candidate for Manhattan borough president; Mr. Cuomo has flatly denied her claims.

The investigation being overseen by the state attorney general could be far-reaching, examining not just the public accusations made by the three women in the past few weeks, but any other claims that may surface.

Attorneys with the law firm that Ms. James plans to have lead the inquiry will have subpoena power to interrogate witnesses, including Mr. Cuomo, and to force the administration to turn over any records, including emails and messages, related to the investigation.

Debra Katz, Ms. Bennett’s lawyer, sent a letter to Ms. James on Friday urging her to ensure that any evidence related to Ms. Bennett’s case is preserved.

In a statement, Ms. Katz said Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff and special counsel had “exploited Charlotte’s fear and manipulated her into accepting a transfer and remaining silent.” Ms. Katz claimed the aides had not pursued an investigation or properly reported Ms. Bennett’s complaint.

“This allowed the governor to sexually harass Ms. Bennett, a subordinate employee who is almost 40 years his junior, with impunity,” Ms. Katz said. “We are confident that a thorough investigation of the workplace environment in Governor Cuomo’s office will conclude that the governor and his senior staff fostered a culture of abuse, harassment and secrecy.”

Ms. Garvey, the governor’s special counsel, responded by saying that “Ms. Bennett’s concerns were treated with sensitivity and respect and in accordance with applicable law and policy.”

The paperwork that Ms. James has asked the administration to preserve will be especially important as investigators scrutinize how members of the governor’s staff handled sexual harassment complaints made by its employees. Questions have already been raised about whether Mr. Cuomo’s aides followed proper protocol in reporting the allegations made by Ms. Bennett, who was an executive assistant at the time.

When Ms. Bennett told Jill DesRosiers, the governor’s chief of staff, that Mr. Cuomo had sexually harassed her in June, shortly after the alleged incident, the disclosure should have been reported to a state labor office. That would have prompted an investigation into her complaint.

It remains unclear whether the governor’s aides properly reported her complaint to the labor office, known as the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, as required under an executive order that Mr. Cuomo issued in 2018 amid the #MeToo movement.

Ms. Bennett said she gave a lengthy statement regarding her interactions with the governor to a special counsel to Mr. Cuomo, Judith Mogul. Ms. Bennett said she made it clear to Ms. Mogul that she believed the governor had propositioned her and was grooming her for sex, telling Mr. Cuomo’s aides that she feared retaliation for reporting his behavior.

Shortly after her initial complaint to Ms. DesRosiers, Ms. Bennett was transferred to another job in a different part of the State Capitol. The governor’s office did not say on Friday whether Ms. Bennett’s complaint was reported or investigated.

“As the documents will reflect, I acted consistent with the information provided, the requirements of the law, and Charlotte’s wishes,” Ms. Mogul said in a statement on Friday.