ALBANY — Charlotte Bennett, the 25-year-old former aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who accused him of sexual harassment, vowed to stand her ground Monday and encouraged other survivors to come forward.
Bennett did so in a response to an apology the governor issued because of the allegations late Sunday afternoon.
Bennett, Cuomo’s former executive assistant and health policy adviser, issued a statement Monday slamming the governor for taking more than a day — and after hours of outcry from officials — to refer the investigation to state Attorney General Letitia James to conduct an independent probe into sexual harassment allegations alleged by two former aides.
“The governor has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior,” Bennett said Monday. “As we know, abusers — particularly those with tremendous amounts of power — are often repeat offenders who engage in manipulative tactics to diminish allegations, blame victims, deny wrongdoing and escape consequences.
“These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice,” she added.
In a Saturday report in The New York Times, Bennett said that while she worked as Cuomo’s former executive assistant and health policy adviser at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial outbreak late last spring, the governor repeatedly asked her about her sex life, if she had ever had sex with older men and if she was monogamous in her relationships.
Cuomo issued a statement of apology late Sunday afternoon, saying he often considers colleagues personal friends and did not intend to offend anyone or cause harm.
“At work, sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good-natured way,” Cuomo said Sunday. “I do it in public and in private. You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.
“I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.
“To be clear, I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to,” his statement reads.
Bennett has faced backlash after speaking out, she said, but the attacks are not deterring her as the investigation proceeds.
“Coming forward was an excruciating decision,” Bennett said. “I decided to share my story because I had faith that I would be supported and believed. This is often not the case. Sharing my experience was only possible because of past survivors who stood up and told their stories.”
Cuomo spoke out Sunday after he and his top aides heard anecdotes that some people contacted Bennett to express displeasure that she came forward about the governor’s alleged sexual harassment.
“My message to anyone doing that is you have misjudged what matters to me and my administration and you should stop now — period,” Cuomo said.
In a statement Monday, Bennett’s attorney, Debra Katz, said her client will fully cooperate with the attorney general’s investigation.
“We are confident that no disinterested investigator who reviews this evidence would adopt the governor’s self-serving characterization of his behavior as mentorship or, at worst, unwanted flirtation,” Katz said. “He was not acting as a mentor and his remarks were not misunderstood by Ms. Bennett. He was abusing his power over her for sex. This is textbook sexual harassment.”
Katz said the attorney general must investigate if other women were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment — if Cuomo spoke to other young women in his administration the way he spoke to Bennett.
Bennett is the second former aide to come forward as last week, Lindsey Boylan, former Empire State Development chief and Cuomo’s special adviser, released a detailed account accusing the governor of sexually harassing her multiple times.
Boylan, who is running for Manhattan borough president, first made her allegations public on Twitter in December of last year.
Boylan alleged “degrading,” “uncomfortable” and “insidious” harassment while working for Cuomo, and accused him of a nonconsensual kiss in his Manhattan office, comments comparing her looks to those of another woman he was rumored to have dated and unwanted touching of her lower back, arms and legs in an essay posted to Medium.com. Boylan wrote the governor’s behavior led to her September 2018 resignation.
Fabien Levy, press secretary and senior adviser in the state attorney general’s office, declined to comment with details about the investigation Monday, and would not say if the review will focus on both Boylan and Bennett’s accusations or include other employees.
“It is also critical for the attorney general to determine if anyone in the Cuomo administration enabled his behavior,” Katz said, adding James should investigate the failure of Cuomo’s chief of staff and special counsel to investigate Bennett’s allegation.
“They had a clear legal obligation to do so.”
Bennett went on to encourage other survivors of sexual harassment.
“To survivors reading this: I believe you. I see you. I hear you,” Bennett said. “Your story is valid, your pain is real and your anger is justified. I am sending you my love, support and solidarity. You are carrying an unbelievable burden — one that takes time and energy to untangle ... I believe we can empower each other. For anyone who needs to hear this, know I am holding space for you, too.
“To the governor’s survivors: I am here. Lindsey is here. You do not have to say a single word. But if you choose to speak your truth, we will be standing with you. I promise,” she added.
A growing number of lawmakers have called on Cuomo to resign.
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx/Westchester, called for Cuomo to step down Saturday after Bennett’s accusations were made public.
“I commend the courage of Ms. Bennett and Lindsey Boylan for coming forward,” Biaggi said. “The harassment experienced by these former staffers is part of a clear pattern of abuse and manipulation by the governor and that pattern makes him unworthy of holding the highest office in New York.”
Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, also called for the governor to step down during a news conference in the state Capitol on Monday afternoon. Cuomo is not fit to hold office, Ortt said, because of two ongoing investigations announced within the last several weeks — one on the sexual harassment claims, and another on the administration’s handling and data release of COVID-19 in state congregate facilities and nursing homes.
“You have a governor facing two investigations on two separate issues which is going to monopolize on a lot of resources and time that I sit there and say, ‘How can that person also do the job they were elected to do in guiding us through this pandemic, in guiding us through the fiscal and economic crisis we are facing?’” Ortt said. “How can the needs of New Yorkers come before the needs of this administration as they deal with cooperating with these two investigations?”
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, would assume Cuomo’s role if he stepped down.
The governor deserves a due process of law to determine guilt or innocence.
“My call for him to step aside isn’t a condemnation in saying he is guilty or not guilty,” Ortt said. “My concern was more could he effectively focus on the pandemic response, on the fiscal crisis while at the same time focusing and engulfed on two separate, significant investigations on two separate issues. I don’t now that any one person could realistically dedicate the proper time to New Yorkers while also dealing with that.”
Growing numbers of lawmakers and state officials came out over the weekend in support of James overseeing an independent investigation, calling on Cuomo to refer the case to her office.
U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both D-N.Y., called for James to investigate the sexual harassment allegations.
Gillibrand released a statement Monday before the Executive Chamber had filed its referral letter.
“These allegations are serious and deeply concerning,” Gillibrand said. “... the matter should be referred to (the AG’s) office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Sunday and Monday that the White House supports New York’s attorney general’s oversight of an independent probe into accusations against New York’s governor.
“The president’s view has been consistent and clear: That every woman coming forward should be treated with dignity and respect, and that applies to Charlotte (Bennett), that applies to Lindsay (Boylan).
“Since yesterday, it has been made clear the New York attorney general will oversee an independent investigation with subpoena power and the governor’s office said he will fully cooperate,” she added. “We fully support that process and we will wait to see that through.”
Psaki did not say Monday if the allegations or investigation should impact Cuomo’s involvement in decisions regarding the state’s pandemic response.