LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing mounting allegations of sexual harassment. A former aide, Charlotte Bennett, told The New York Times in an interview published this weekend that Cuomo asked her about her sex life. She's the second former staffer to accuse the three-term Democratic governor of harassment. In a statement, Cuomo denies doing anything inappropriate and calls for an independent review.
NPR's Joel Rose is following the story and joins us now. Hi there.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us more about these allegations.
ROSE: Well, Charlotte Bennett was a health policy adviser in the Cuomo administration until November. The 25-year-old woman told The New York Times that Cuomo asked her a series of personal questions, some of them inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men. She says she reported the conversation to the governor's chief of staff and was quickly reassigned to a different job with an office on the opposite end of the state Capitol. She agreed to talk about this experience, according to the Times, because she felt an obligation to other victims of sexual harassment and because she wanted to counter the way Cuomo, quote, "wields his power."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What has been the response from Governor Cuomo?
ROSE: Well, Cuomo put out a statement last night. He does not deny asking personal questions, but he defends his conduct. Cuomo says he never made advances toward Bennett and never acted in a way that was, quote, "inappropriate." I was trying to be a mentor to her, Cuomo says. The governor is calling for a full and thorough outside review.
As you said, Bennett is now the second former aide to come forward with sexual harassment allegations against the governor. Former staffer Lindsey Boylan accused Cuomo of inappropriate behavior, including unwanted kissing. Boylan detailed her allegations in a piece posted on Medium last week. She wrote that in Cuomo's office, quote, "sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned, but expected," unquote. And I should say that Cuomo has denied those allegations.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what happens next? Do we know who will be doing this, quote, "thorough outside review" that Governor Cuomo is calling for?
ROSE: So what happens next? Do we know who will be doing this thorough outside review that Governor Cuomo is calling for? That's a key question. Initially, the governor said the review would be led by a former federal judge. But lawmakers in Albany from both parties questioned whether that was a good choice because she worked in private practice with one of Cuomo's close friends. Now the governor's office is calling on the state's attorney general and chief judge to appoint an independent investigator. And the attorney general, Letitia James, released her own statement, saying she is ready to oversee the investigation and that it should include subpoena power.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cuomo is also facing criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. So this comes at a particularly difficult time.
ROSE: That's right. And State Attorney General Letitia James is right in the middle of that scandal as well. Her office released a report last month that said the administration was undercounting the number of nursing home fatalities in New York state by as much as half. A top aide to Cuomo later admitted that the administration held off on releasing some of that unflattering data because it was afraid it would be politicized by the Trump administration. So there's now a lot of scrutiny on how that was handled as well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you think this all means for Cuomo?
ROSE: Well, it is just an incredibly swift turnabout. Last year, Cuomo was getting a lot of praise - right? - for his coronavirus press conferences, projecting an air of competence that people seemed to be hungry for. He even wrote a memoir about leadership lessons from the COVID crisis. Now that narrative is very much in doubt, and these sexual harassment allegations are raising calls for his resignation. At the very least, I think they have revealed that his base of political support in New York is smaller than a lot of people would have thought, and that could leave him seriously weakened as he looks for a fourth term as governor next year.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you very much.
ROSE: You're welcome.
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