New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a briefing related to COVID-19 in New York City on September 8. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 28 (UPI) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday he was "truly sorry" if "some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation," after earlier in the day asking the New York state's attorney general and chief judge to appoint an independent investigator to examine the allegations of sexual harassment made against him.
"To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable," Cuomo, 63, said in a statement released early Sunday night.
Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett, 25, told The New York Times in a report Saturday that he made several inappropriate remarks about her sex life.
Last week, Lindsey Boylan, a deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to Cuomo from 2015 to 2018, said the governor "sexually harassed me for years" in a post on Medium.
On Saturday, Cuomo had announced the appointment of a former federal judge to look into the allegations but members of his party, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said that wasn't good enough.
"The governor's office wants a review of the sexual harassment claims made against the governor to be done in a manner beyond reproach," Beth Garvey, special counsel and senior adviser to Cuomo, said in a statement Sunday morning. "We had selected former federal judge Barbara Jones, with a stellar record for qualifications and integrity, but we want to avoid even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics."
New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, said she is prepared to lead an independent investigation into Cuomo.
"Allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously," James said in a statement. "There must be a truly independent investigation to thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor, and I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary."
James then issued a clarifying statement: "I do not accept the governor's proposal. The state's Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral.
"While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task, per Executive Law. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted."
Bennett said Cuomo asked her questions about her sex life during a conversation in his State Capitol office in June. The 25-year-old former executive assistant and health policy adviser to Cuomo said he was open to relationships with women in their 20s.
In a statement Saturday, Cuomo said: "I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate. The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported."
He added that "she came to me and opened up about being a sexual assault survivor" and that "I tried to be supportive and helpful."
Cuomo further explained the situation Sunday.
"At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny," Cuomo said. "I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. 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."
Boylan alleged in the post on Medium that Cuomo invited her to "play strip poker" while on a flight on his taxpayer-funded jet in October 2017. Another aide was seated beside her and a state trooper behind her. Also in 2018, Boylan said, Cuomo kissed her on the lips after a one-on-one briefing on economic and infrastructure projects in his New York City office.
Four other people said they were on flights with her and that "this conversation did not happen."
Boylan, 36, made initial allegations that Cuomo denied during a news conference in December.
After Cuomo announced his own selection of an attorney to look into the matter, some Democrats had said Cuomo's decision to name an independent investigator was not proper.
"No, I wouldn't consider that to be independent," Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told ABC's This Week on Sunday. "It should be, I would say, the attorney general of New York."
Gillibrand on Sunday called for "an independent, transparent and swift investigation into these serious and deeply concerning allegations," in a tweet shared by the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty.
In 2017, she forced the resignation of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken's resignation over sexual harassment claims.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, said on CNN's State of the Union, said:
"There should be an independent review of these allegations. They're serious. It was hard to read that story as a woman. And that process should move forward as quickly as possible and that's something we all support and the president supports."
Also, she said Biden believes Bennett and Boylan "should be treated with respect and dignity."
Also Sunday, New York Mayor de Blasio, a Democrat, repeated his calls for the governor to lose the emergency powers that the state legislature granted him at the start of the pandemic.
DeBlasio wants a separate investigation of Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths from coronavirus.
"The investigation into nursing home deaths must be free to examine campaign contributions from the nursing home industry," the mayor said in a statement. "And the investigation into sexual misconduct must be led by someone fully independent of the governor, not the former business partner of the governor's top adviser."