Politico

Cuomo's office accused of violating its own sexual harassment policy


ALBANY, N.Y. — A high-ranking Democrat in the New York Legislature and a lawyer representing one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s accusers say the governor’s office flouted its own rules on handling sexual harassment complaints.

An executive order issued by Cuomo two years ago requires such allegations against state employees to be referred to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, which must conduct an investigation even if a victim declines to file a formal complaint with the office. State law also requires such an investigation.

But Cuomo’s staff won’t say if that happened when Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old executive assistant in the governor’s office, complained to Cuomo’s chief of staff, Jill DesRosiers, that the governor had questioned her about her sex life last spring. Bennett told The New York Times she gave a statement to the governor’s special counsel and was transferred a short time later to a job as a health care adviser in another office in the Capitol.

Bennett is one of three women who have accused the governor of sexual harassment, two of whom are former aides.

State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said the governor’s office failed to act as it should have. She has sponsored many of the state’s new harassment laws and advocated for additional protections.

“I do not believe he followed his own policies or the law,” Krueger said in an interview. “We passed an anti-harassment law specifically to address problems for employees of the state government in dealing with cases of harassment by people in positions of power over them.”

Beth Garvey, a senior adviser and counsel to the governor, said in a statement Sunday that the complaint was handled “in accordance with applicable law and policy.” She said the issue was “escalated” to a special counsel, and Bennett was “thoroughly debriefed on the facts” and “consulted regarding the resolution.”

But Garvey did not say the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations handled the case, nor did she say a formal investigation was conducted, as Cuomo’s order required. Asked directly whether an investigation was conducted by the employee relations office, Garvey would not say.

The governor’s office, she said, “will not have further comment on this” until state Attorney General Tish James completes her investigation of the accusations against Cuomo.

Debra Katz, an attorney representing Bennett, said in a statement Wednesday that the attorney general’s probe will show that Cuomo’s office did not properly handle her client’s allegations.

“We are confident that they made him aware of her complaint and we fully expect that the Attorney General’s investigation will demonstrate that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or to ensure that corrective measures were taken, in violation of their legal requirements,” Katz, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Christine Blasey Ford, said after Cuomo denied wrongdoing at a press conference Wednesday.

Krueger said state law also requires a formal investigation in such cases.

“One could say that the minute she told somebody, that should have triggered an investigation and that’s how we wrote that anti-harassment bill,” Krueger said. “Once she told someone, that someone had an obligation to do something and that something they were supposed to do was not move her to a different office.”

Cuomo in 2018 promoted the executive order on internal sexual harassment investigations as part of his efforts to combat misconduct in the workplace, positioning himself as an ally of the #MeToo movement. The directive comported with a state law he’d signed earlier in the year that required all employers to adopt harassment policies with minimum standards, including thorough investigations.

Because that didn’t happen in this case, future victims are at risk, said Erica Vladimer, a former legislative staffer who accused her then-boss of sexual harassment and co-founded an advocacy group to address a culture of such behavior in Albany.

“When you don’t follow protocols that are there to keep the system moving and making sure the system is there to keep people safe in the workplace… you’re setting up more workers, more employees to become victims and be harassed and be abused,” Vladimer said. “It doesn’t seem they followed any of their internal procedures.”

Vladimir and other anti-harassment advocates say the governor’s failed effort to name his own investigator over the weekend rather than immediately refer the allegations to the attorney general highlights the need for an independent body to deal with harassment allegations.

Patricia Gunning, who is suing New York state because, she said, she was fired from her state job after reporting sexual harassment to the office of employee relations, also said New York needs an independent body to investigate these kinds of accusations.

“I am hopeful that Attorney General Letitia James will work hard to protect the integrity of the investigation,” she said in a statement. “That integrity is not something that is currently guaranteed to state employees in Executive Agencies whose complaints and the investigations related to them… are dominated by conflicts of interest and the tight grip of the Governor’s Office.”

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