How Cuomo’s team tried to tarnish one of his accusers

The New York Times
New York, United States of AmericaWritten By: Maggie Haberman and Jesse McKinley © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Mar 17, 2021, 03:11 PM IST


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The letter was a full-on attack on Boylan’s credibility, suggesting that her accusations, made in a series of Twitter posts in December, were premeditated and politically motivated. It disclosed personnel complaints filed against her and attempted to link her to supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Days after Lindsey Boylan became the first woman to accuse Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment, people tied to the governor started circulating an open letter that they hoped former staff members would sign.

The letter was a full-on attack on Boylan’s credibility, suggesting that her accusations, made in a series of Twitter posts in December, were premeditated and politically motivated. It disclosed personnel complaints filed against her and attempted to link her to supporters of former President Donald Trump.

“Weaponizing a claim of sexual harassment for personal political gain or to achieve notoriety cannot be tolerated,” the letter concluded. “False claims demean the veracity of credible claims.”

The initial idea, according to three people with direct knowledge of the events, was to have former Cuomo aides — especially women — sign their names to the letter and circulate it fairly widely.

Multiple drafts were created, and Cuomo was involved in creating the letter, one of the people said. Current aides to the governor emailed at least one draft to a group of former advisers. From there, it circulated to current and former top aides to the governor.

It is not clear how many people were asked to sign the letter, but two former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to anger Cuomo, decided that they did not want their names on it.

The letter, which was reviewed by The New York Times, was never released. Boylan did not immediately elaborate or follow up on her Twitter posts in December, allowing her accusations to fade, along with the urgency of the effort to discredit her. Still, the letter shows that the Cuomo administration was poised to quickly and aggressively undercut Boylan, a Democrat who is running for Manhattan borough president.

At the time, officials in the governor’s office were aware of another sexual harassment issue involving Cuomo that had not yet become public.

Six months earlier, Charlotte Bennett, an executive assistant and senior briefer, had told two senior officials in the governor’s office that he had harassed her, asking her probing personal questions including whether she was monogamous and whether she slept with older men.

Bennett went public with her allegations in The New York Times last month, saying in an interview how she “understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me,” adding that she “felt horribly uncomfortable and scared.”

Bennett came forward just days after Boylan had written an essay on Medium, detailing the allegations that she initially made on Twitter Dec. 13. Boylan wrote that the governor would repeatedly try to touch her on her arms, legs and lower back, and that he once suggested they “play strip poker.”

Since then, several other women have accused Cuomo of inappropriate conduct, from unwanted sexual advances to unsolicited kisses and groping.

The governor has denied ever touching anyone inappropriately and has pleaded with New Yorkers to await the outcome of two separate investigations: one overseen by the state attorney general, Letitia James, and another by the state Assembly. While Cuomo has suggested that some of his actions or statements may have been misinterpreted, his rejection of Boylan’s claims has been far more strenuous.

“I believe a woman has the right to come forward and express her opinion and express issues and concerns that she has,” Cuomo said Dec. 14. “But it’s just not true.”

The allegations and resulting political firestorm have left the governor at the lowest political ebb in his decadelong tenure, defiantly resisting calls from most of New York’s prominent elected officials to resign.

In an ABC News interview broadcast Tuesday evening, President Joe Biden said that he believed Cuomo should resign if investigators confirmed the accusers’ claims. The president’s remarks represented a slight shift — and increased stakes for Cuomo — from comments Biden made Sunday, when he noted only that “the investigation is underway, and we should see what it brings us.”

Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, said Tuesday that the administration had no comment on the letter about Boylan, citing the ongoing investigations.

At least one version of the letter included Boylan’s text exchanges with some of Cuomo’s senior advisers last year, in an effort to suggest that she was malicious. The Times is not quoting extensively from the letter, to avoid publishing character attacks that were not made publicly.

The draft extensively disparaged Boylan and accused her of using her claims for “political retribution.”

The letter pointed out that Boylan’s campaign consultant also represented a political adversary of the governor’s, and that Boylan was “supported by lawyers and financial backers of Donald Trump: an active opponent of the governor.”

The initial plan for a letter about Boylan illustrated how the Cuomo administration was prepared to launch a broader effort to damage her credibility.

The approach appeared consistent with a culture of intimidation from the governor’s office that former aides have described, and Boylan was clearly a target.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that aides to Cuomo called at least six former aides shortly after Boylan’s Twitter posts, which accused the governor of harassing her in front of others. The calls were to ask whether the former aides had heard from the accuser, or to learn things about her. Some of those contacted felt as if the calls were meant to intimidate them from speaking out.

Another of Cuomo’s accusers and another former aide, Ana Liss, said that she had received a call from a top adviser to the governor shortly after Boylan tweeted about the governor in December.

“I thought, why would he do that?” Liss, who now works for Monroe County, said in an interview. “He was trying to confirm how broad Lindsey’s network was.”

On Tuesday, Boylan’s lawyer, Jill Basinger, said the letter was another attempt to smear her client.

“Once again, a victim of sexual harassment who has the courage to tell her story is put in the position of not only having to relive the trauma of a toxic work environment but defend herself against the malicious leaking of supposed personnel files, character assassinations and a whisper campaign of retaliation,” Basinger said. “This page needs to be ripped out of the governor’s harassment handbook.”

The use of such tactics in harassment claims is so commonplace that it has its own acronym: DARVO, which stands for “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender.”

“It is incredibly common for individuals who experience sexual harassment to also experience retaliation,” said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, which runs the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “We’ve heard from thousands of individuals who are seeking help to address workplace harassment, and more than 70% of them say they have also experienced retaliation.”

Shortly after Boylan had first accused Cuomo, several media organizations published details of her personnel records that were released by the Cuomo administration, outlining unflattering accounts of Boylan’s past actions as a boss and recommendations of disciplinary action against her.

For supporters of Cuomo, who has denied any wrongdoing, the documents were exculpatory, painting a picture of a disgruntled employee with an ax to grind.

Beth Garvey, acting counsel to Cuomo, defended the release of Boylan's records, saying on Tuesday that, with certain exceptions, “it is within a government entity’s discretion to share redacted employment records, including in instances when members of the media ask for such public information and when it is for the purpose of correcting inaccurate or misleading statements.”

She, too, cited the attorney general’s investigation and refrained from additional comment.

The speed at which the documents were provided was exceptional, particularly considering that statehouse reporters in Albany and elsewhere are accustomed to waiting for months, if not years, for access to public records through the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

“The administration has a well-documented record to being pretty closed on FOIL,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, noting efforts to stymie reporters looking into Joseph Percoco, a close aide of Cuomo’s who was convicted of federal corruption charges in 2018. “There’s considerable and consistent examples of them making it extremely difficult to get records.”

Lawyers who work on sexual harassment said that an employee's work history was immaterial to whether or not they can claim harassment.

“There’s not a defense to harassment that the person was a bad employee,” said Elizabeth Kristen, a senior staff attorney with Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco, adding, “It’s not even relevant. Maybe she was the worst employee in the world, but she could still be harassed.”