How New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used #MeToo

Written by Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram

Two summers ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stared into a camera, signed a bill and made a pledge to women in the state. “Let’s actually change things,” he said, underscoring every word of determination with a handshake as he endorsed a full new level of protection against sexual harassment.

The next day, he resumed his unwelcome pursuit of a police officer, according to a report by the state attorney general released last week. “Why aren’t you wearing a dress?” he asked her on August 13, 2019, the report says. A month later, she told investigators that Cuomo accidentally ran a hand over his stomach.

The complaints against Cuomo can seem boring in the #MeToo era: another series of stories of embarrassing seizures and young women scared to speak up, this time in Albany. But just as the world was awakening to the raids of powerful men a few years ago – with New York City as the epicenter of misconduct – Cuomo used the highest office in the state to commit new crimes, according to the report. Meanwhile, he publicly allied himself with the #MeToo movement, building its reputation and generating campaign money.

Of the 11 women described in the report as victims of Cuomo’s harassment, at least eight said they saw it after early October 2017, when producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct revelations became known. At the time, Cuomo asked a young assistant named Lindsey Boylan to play strip poker, she said. In November 2017, as the tide of allegations against other men increased, Cuomo targeted the state trooper and asked to be reassigned to his command, the report said. From there, it claimed, he went on to criminal acts, which included touching. The three-term Democrat has denied “touching someone inappropriately or making inappropriate sexual advances”, suggesting that the Attorney General’s investigation was politically motivated.

During this time, Cuomo not only made it easier for New Yorkers to bring claims of sexual harassment, but also passed a law extending the statute of limitations on rape. When he bragged about these achievements at press conferences and public events, he surrounded himself with powerful feminists such as activists Mira Sorvino and Julianne Moore. He allied himself with the leaders of Time’s Up, the equality organization formed after the Weinstein allegations, and relied on them for advice later.

He also pointed his finger at other men who were held accountable. “Nobody is above the law,” Cuomo said in a May 2018 statement after several women accused then-Attorney General of the State Eric Schneiderman of sexual violence. He asked the officer to resign.

The governor’s call was “Andrew Cuomo, your number one feminist friend,” said Alexis Grenell, a former assistant who has written about her disgust for Cuomo.

So if a senior politician can ignore changing societal standards, disregard new rules once they’re passed, and use #MeToo for his own protection, allegedly hurting women, where is the pursuit of progress?

Last week’s attorney general’s report was supposed to be a meticulous investigation into the governor’s actions. But with its full weight it also takes on a second role: as a roadmap to the limits of what has been achieved since 2017. Sexual misconduct in the workplace persists. Victims still do not have effective and safe ways to report. And even major legislative changes may not be enough.

“It’s not just about tightening the law,” said Anita Hill, who introduced the term sexual harassment to many Americans three decades ago, in an interview. “You also have to change the mindset of people who believe they are above the law.”

The list of allegations in the report against Cuomo’s public records also shows the extent to which #MeToo can be exploited. In March 2018, reported Slate, Cuomo sent out a fundraising email with the subject “NY is #MeToo”. The message promoted “a new campaign to capture the momentum of the #MeToo movement and put it into action” and ended with a warning: “If you keep turning a blind eye to sexual harassment, your #TimesUp is this November!”

That fall, Cuomo invited the soldier for a private tour of the mansion, according to the report.

Cuomo’s Albany milieu remained an almost perfect facility for perpetuating and concealing wrongdoing, the report said. Almost all power in the executive branch was concentrated in his hands or held by loyal subordinates. Although his office ran annual sexual harassment training, Cuomo testified that he could remember doing this only once in 2019. Many employees had no idea how to complain, and retaliation was a constant threat.

“You can see people being punished and yelled at for doing something that you disagree with him or his top aides,” said Alyssa McGrath, an advisor who accused Cuomo of staring at her, to investigators.

In the four years since #MeToo took over the globe, companies have become much more sensitive to sexual misconduct, lawyers and activists say. Women seem to get louder and louder, especially when it comes to securing each other’s accounts. And activists have been pushing for laws to be strengthened across the country. But almost no one believes that the original problem has subsided.

“I don’t think sexual harassment has decreased,” said Debra Katz, an attorney who represents Charlotte Bennett, one of Cuomo’s accusers.

The governor’s behavior – signing a law one day, supposedly breaking it the next – shows how long it can take even tough laws to come into effect.

“Activism that is all about getting laws in the books is just not enough,” Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, said in an interview. Because little changes without social attitudes changing, “comprehensive sex education” – and educating people about consent from an early age – is “more important than passing new laws”.

The Justice Department is investigating whether U.S. MP Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old from 2018-2020 and violated sex trafficking laws.Team, formerly known as the Redskins, were among other things of groping accused. The former McDonald’s CEO ran into trouble over the same period over sexual relationships with subordinates.

Even in the pandemic year 2020, when companies were closed, the volume of complaints to the Commission for Equal Opportunities only decreased slightly. Katz added that the pandemic has led to new forms of abuse: bosses using creepy phone calls or unwanted visits to female subordinates.

“I still get claims from people who work in companies where multiple people have been outed,” said Mariann Wang, a New York attorney who represents two of the governor’s prosecutors.

One of the most striking aspects of the governor’s allegations is that they have remained almost secret. One woman “first wanted to ‘bury’ her experience of harassment by the governor,” the report said. That only changed when Boylan publicly accused the governor of harassment on Twitter. She later said she spoke up because Cuomo was mentioned as a candidate for attorney general in the Biden administration – a prospect she found alarming.

In one case, he may even have used his image as a fighter for women to nurture a victim. Bennett, a former executive assistant in Cuomo’s office, said he fixated on her experience as a sexual assault survivor in college before making any progress on her. In case of doubt, she gave him preference because he was public, said Katz, her lawyer.

Now women who believed in this image feel betrayed. “He has a cloud of illegality, sexism and misogyny over his head, and what annoys most: He was a vocal, aggressive and effective advocate for women and girls,” said Christine Quinn, a former spokeswoman for New York City Council and former ally of the governor. “Was it all just a show?”

Time’s Up has worked extensively with Cuomo to get legislation passed. These achievements are significant, but “it feels like we’re being used as a cover now,” said their CEO, Tina Tchen, who has come under fire for her collaboration with the governor.

Burke said she had never had extensive business with Cuomo but felt for other advocates who had. “A lot of people don’t know how much our work is at the mercy of these men,” she said, adding, “When I have the legislature’s ear to make change, I will join that person.” . “

But the leaders of Time’s Up have worked more than just with Cuomo on legislation.

After Boylan made the first public harassment allegations, the governor’s office set out to discredit her. Roberta Kaplan, the chair of Time’s Up and co-founder of the Legal Defense Fund, provided feedback, in consultation with Tchen, on a comment aimed at defaming Boylan. (The letter was never published.)

Kaplan and Tchen are now accused of being involved in “illegal retaliation” by the governor’s aides, which the attorney general mentions in the attorney general’s report. And in interviews, several sexual assault survivors asked why Time’s Up leaders even advised the governor on his response.

The two women said they warned Cuomo’s office not to carry out the attack. “I haven’t signed anything,” Tchen said in an email. Both said she and Time’s Up would “continue to fight for, support and empower women,” as Kaplan put it in a statement.

But the prominent lawyer is still in an awkward position. Melissa DeRosa, a senior advisor to the governor who investigators said led the prosecution against Boylan, is represented by Kaplan’s law firm and testified that Kaplan was her own attorney in the attorney general’s investigation. When asked if she ever advised DeRosa beyond the comment, Kaplan said, “Since my law firm represented Ms. DeRosa, I cannot talk about advising a client.”

Hill, who has been urging the government to conduct sexual harassment investigations with clear logs for years, pointed to a hopeful outcome in the Cuomo saga: the attorney general’s report was a “proper investigation,” she said.

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