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N.Y. Gov. Cuomo Apologizes For Comments Amid Sexual Harassment Claims

NOEL KING, HOST:

Two women, former aides to New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, are accusing him of workplace harassment. He has asked for an independent investigation into those allegations. Cuomo is taking heat from a lot of sides these days. He's under pressure about his management style and also how he's handled the pandemic in New

York. Karen DeWitt is a reporter with New York State Public Radio and has been following this one. Good morning, Karen.

KAREN DEWITT, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Tell me about Charlotte Bennett, the second woman who came forward.

DEWITT: Well, she's 25. She worked as an executive assistant and health policy adviser to the governor. Bennett's account was first reported in The New York Times. She says last spring, during the height of the pandemic in New York, the governor made several unwelcome advances towards her. She said the governor, who's single and 63 years old, also asked her whether she would consider sleeping with older men. Now, Bennett found that talk pretty unsettling. She did complain about the incident at the time to two female supervisors. They agreed to place her in a new job at the opposite end of the state Capitol from where the governor's office is located. She later left that job.

KING: And the first woman to come forward, Lindsey Boylan, what does she say?

DEWITT: Well, Boylan is another former aide. She accused the governor of kissing her without her permission during another private meeting in the governor's office and of asking her during a business trip on his private plane whether she wanted to play strip poker with him.

KING: Has Cuomo responded?

DEWITT: Well, yeah, he's denying that he did anything wrong. But he did issue a lengthy statement on Sunday evening, saying that while he never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm, he admits that he's teased people who he works with about their personal lives and relationships. And the governor in his statement goes on to say that he now understands that some of the things he said were misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation and that he's truly sorry about that. But he says he never inappropriately propositioned or touched anyone.

KING: Cuomo often defends himself and his supporters defend him by saying, you know, it's New York politics. It's rough and tumble. It's just different here. What are other state lawmakers saying about these allegations?

DEWITT: Well, they don't completely agree with that. Nearly every top Democrat and Republican officeholder, state and federal, say the allegations need to be taken very seriously. They're calling for an independent investigation. Now, the state's attorney general, Letitia James, she wanted immediately to appoint a special investigator with full subpoena powers. After initial attempts by Cuomo to conduct a less formal investigation, the governor finally agreed late last night. He says he and his staff will now cooperate fully with the attorney general.

KING: OK, now, in the meantime, he is also under pressure for not being honest with the public about how many people died of COVID-19 in nursing homes in the state.

DEWITT: That's right. And it was the attorney general who issued a report in late January that found the governor's administration had undercounted the nursing home deaths by 50% because he didn't release the number of deaths of residents who became sick with COVID, were transferred to a hospital and passed away there. That set off a firestorm of criticism. Now he's under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office of Eastern New York. And remember, this was the governor who became sort of a folk hero for his widely watched daily briefings during the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, where he calmly offered facts and science. He told stories about his family. He even won an Emmy.

KING: And now are there real questions about his political future?

DEWITT: Well, you know, there are. Republicans - they're in the minority party in the legislature - and even a few Democrats are calling for him to resign or even to be impeached. If Cuomo left, he wouldn't be the first governor in recent state history to resign over a sex scandal. Former Governor Eliot Spitzer had to leave office in 2007 after he was outed for patronizing prostitutes. If the governor can stay, he'll be severely weakened. For a year now, he's had extraordinary emergency powers under the pandemic. He can close down and open businesses and schools, decide who gets the vaccine and when. It's likely that the legislature is going to move to curb those powers in the coming days.

KING: Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio. Karen, thanks for your reporting. We appreciate it.

DEWITT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.