ALBANY, NY – In his first public remarks since a sexual harassment scandal engulfed his administration, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday that he was embarrassed by his actions and apologized, but said he would not resign his position.
By appearing at the state Capitol, the governor sought to quell outrage over his actions regarding three young women, including allegations of sexual harassment of two state workers and another of unwanted touching and kissing at a wedding, as a growing chorus from his fellow Democrats. asked him to step aside.
Mr. Cuomo, whose voice seemed to break at times, said he wanted New Yorkers to “hear directly from me about this.”
“Now I understand that I acted in a way that made people uncomfortable,” he said. “It was not intentional and I sincerely and deeply apologize for it. I feel very bad about it and frankly I am ashamed and it is not easy to say, but it is the truth. “
He stressed that “he never touched anyone inappropriately.”
“I never knew at the time that I was making someone uncomfortable,” he said. “And I certainly never meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone pain. That’s the last thing I’d like to do. “
In his comments and in response to a series of questions, Mr. Cuomo expressed his regret, a rarity in a politician known for his sometimes blunt and gruff personality, saying that he has “learned from what has been an incredibly difficult situation for me and me. other people.”
“I will be the best for this experience,” he said.
Few, if any, high-ranking officials have vigorously defended Cuomo, and most Democrats have repeatedly called for an independent investigation into the claims, which will now be overseen by state attorney general Letitia James.
Wednesday’s press conference was the governor’s first briefing in nine days, the longest that has gone without answering questions from journalists since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The governor, a third-term Democrat, had previously tried to explain that some of his previous comments and questions to staff had been misinterpreted and “may have been insensitive or too personal.”
“I acknowledge that some of the things I have said have been misconstrued as unwanted flirting,” Cuomo said in a statement Sunday. “To the extent that anyone felt that way, I’m really sorry.”
That statement fell short for many, including Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former Cuomo aide who told The New York Times that the governor asked her a series of sexually charged questions during a private meeting last June, including whether she he was monogamous and had slept with older men. Shocked and upset, Ms. Bennett reported the incident to Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff and was quickly transferred to another part of state government.
On Monday, he characterized the governor’s initial apology, and a failed attempt to install an associate of a senior aide to conduct an investigation, as a cowardly attempt to evade responsibility.
“These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood,” Bennett wrote. “They are the actions of an individual who exercises his power to avoid justice.”
On Wednesday, Ms. Bennett was also unimpressed by the governor, who at one point said he was specifically apologizing to “the young woman who worked here,” but did not say her name.
“The governor’s press conference was full of falsehoods and inaccurate information, and New Yorkers deserve better,” said Debra S. Katz, a prominent stalking attorney representing Ms. Bennett.
Ms. Katz added that she hoped the attorney general’s report “would show that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or failed to ensure that corrective action was taken, in violation of her requirements. legal “.
The turmoil in Albany began last week with Lindsey Boylan, who served in the Cuomo administration from 2015 to 2018. She published an essay detailing a number of disturbing interactions with Cuomo, including an instance in which she said the governor suggested that ” they will play striptease. ” poker. “Boylan also said the governor gave him an unsolicited kiss on the lips after a personal meeting with him in his Manhattan office in 2018.
“When I got up to leave and walk to an open door, he stood in front of me and kissed me on the lips,” wrote Ms. Boylan, who is running for president of the Manhattan borough. “I was in shock, but I kept walking.”
The governor’s office flatly denied Ms. Boylan’s claim.
On Wednesday, Ms Boylan also appeared to reject the governor’s extended apology, questioning his lack of recognition that his actions toward women were inherently inappropriate, regardless of his intention.
On Monday, Anna Ruch, a 33-year-old woman who served in the Obama administration, described an unwanted advance by the governor at a wedding, which included touching her bare back, grabbing her face, and planting an unwanted kiss on her cheek.
When asked about Wednesday’s incident, Mr. Cuomo said that kissing and hugging was his “usual and customary way of greeting,” but that he apologized if he had inconvenienced Ms. Ruch, reiterating that it was not his intention to do so. .
“If they were offended by that, then it was wrong,” Cuomo said. “If you were offended by that, I apologize. If you were hurt, I apologize. If you felt pain because of that, I apologize. I apologize. It was not my intention. I didn’t mean to say it that way, but if that’s how you felt, that’s all that matters and I apologize. “
Ms. James, a Democrat, is expected to hire an outside law firm soon to lead a civil investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against the governor.
The investigation could be broad enough to include possible claims that have not yet surfaced. Investigators will have subpoena power to request office records, emails, and text messages, as well as witnesses, including Mr. Cuomo, to testify under oath.
Lawmakers have privately speculated that the outcome of the investigation could increase pressure on Cuomo to resign or influence his decision to seek reelection next year.
As state attorney general, Mr. Cuomo investigated two governors, David A. Paterson and Eliot Spitzer. In both cases, the investigations were politically devastating for the governors, helping to seal their political careers.
“I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts of the attorney general’s report before forming an opinion,” Cuomo said Wednesday.
Cuomo is currently undergoing another crisis: allegations that his administration withheld key data on coronavirus-related nursing home deaths to cover the full death toll in such facilities.
Last month, during a private meeting with state legislators, the top aide to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, admitted to withholding the data out of fear that the Trump Justice Department would use it against the governor at the time.
The revelation prompted federal prosecutors and the FBI to open an investigation into the matter.
There were some potential signs of fatigue in Cuomo’s inner circle: Just before Cuomo spoke on Wednesday, Gareth Rhodes, one of the top coronavirus advisers, announced that he would be leaving the governor’s task force to tackle the disease.
Rhodes, whose 2019 Manhattan wedding was where Cuomo kissed Ms. Ruch, said his decision was made last week.
Politico also reported that a press aide, Will Burns, informed the governor’s office on Tuesday that he would be leaving the executive chamber.
On Wednesday, Ms. Katz took note of the departures and repeated Ms. Bennett’s earlier call for others who may have experienced or witnessed harassment by the governor to speak out.
“If they know something or have experienced it themselves,” Katz said, “we ask that you come forward and report this misconduct.”