New York

Cuomo Trying to Interfere With AG's Sexual Harassment Probe, Lawyer for Accuser Says

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  • A lawyer for one of the women who have accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment charged Monday that he is trying to interfere with a state attorney general's office investigation of the women's claims.
  • The lawyer, Debra Katz, in a letter to Attorney General Letitia James, objected to a report that Cuomo's office has provided "in-house attorneys" to staff members to meet with them before they are questioned by James' investigators.
  • She warned that the involvement of in-house lawyers from Cuomo's office "will almost certainly deter those with relevant information about" Charlotte Bennett's and others' allegations from coming forward.

A lawyer for one of the women who have accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment charged Monday that he is trying to interfere with a state attorney general's office investigation of the women's claims.

The lawyer, Debra Katz, in a letter to Attorney General Letitia James, objected to a report that Cuomo's office has provided "in-house attorneys" to staff members to meet with them before they are questioned by James' investigators.

"It is my understanding that these attorneys are also 'debriefing' staffers after their interviews with investigators," wrote Katz, who represents former Cuomo staffer Charlotte Bennett.

"This is highly improper and we object in the strongest possible terms to this obvious interference with what you have stated would be a 'thorough and independent' investigation," Katz told James.

She warned that the involvement of in-house lawyers from Cuomo's office "will almost certainly deter those with relevant information about" Bennett's and others' allegations from coming forward.

Katz urged James to issue a directive to the three-term Democratic governor "to cease this highly improper practice."

Katz said that the decision to provide attorneys to staffers who accompany them to interviews "will have a chilling effect on potential witnesses or other accusers" who want to cooperate with the probe but who "fear job-related retaliation if they tell the investigators about the Governor's sexual harassing behavior and misconduct of those around him."

Katz wrote that she has spoken to witnesses who fear retaliation if they refuse to cooperate with Cuomo's lawyers. They also feel constrained in what they can share with James' investigator with those attorneys present, she said.

"We believe this offer of counsel constitutes a deliberate attempt by the Governor to interfere with your office's investigation," Katz wrote.

Cuomo's press office and a lawyer recently hired by the governor did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for James said Tuesday, "Survivors deserve to have their stories heard without interference. Our investigation will include a thorough and independent examination of the facts, period."

"We will continue to work diligently, and will publicly disclose our findings so that there can be transparency and accountability devoid of any external influence in this matter," the spokesman said.

James has hired a team of outside lawyers to investigate claims by Bennett and other women that Cuomo sexually harassed them or otherwise made inappropriate physical contact or comments. The accusers include former staffers, including Bennett, and at least two current staff members.

Bennett, 25, has said she believes the 63-year-old governor was trying to have a sexual relationship with her when he asked her last year about her sex life, whether she had ever been involved with an older man and other questions that made her uncomfortable.

Cuomo has denied acting inappropriately toward any woman.

In her letter to James, Katz also noted, as she had in a prior letter to the attorney general, that the Albany Times Union recently reported that Cuomo had claimed that James had directed the Executive Chamber — Cuomo's office and cabinet — to conduct its own inquiry into a claim that he aggressively groped a current aide in the governor's mansion last year.

Katz wrote that legal responsibility for investigating workplace harassment within the Executive Chamber belongs to the Governor's Office of Employee Relations. She said that the Executive Department's employee handbook expressly requires any sexual harassment complaint to be handled by GOER.

The lawyer wrote that the report of the so-called parallel investigations by the Executive Chamber, coupled with its failure to address Bennett's allegations last year, "clearly demonstrates" the chamber's "unwillingness to use the proper channels for reporting and investigating claims of sexual harassment."

Katz asked James to issue a statement saying that she was not made aware of or had approved the Executive Chamber's investigation.

"Otherwise, this unauthorized parallel investigation will continue to undermine the legitimacy of the thorough, independent investigation being conducted by your office," Katz wrote.

The Times Union wrote last week that Cuomo's acting counsel Beth Garvey, in a statement to the newspaper, said, "We fully informed the (attorney general's) office of the required process with this type of allegation and they said to follow it. The matter was referred to GOER (Governor's Office of Employee Relations) and (we) informed local law enforcement and that is the full extent of the action."

Cuomo has repeatedly refused to resign despite an increasing number of allegations against him.

A majority of New York's Democratic congressional delegation members, as well as scores of Democrats in the state legislature, have demanded that Cuomo resign.

The state Assembly Judiciary Committee has opened an inquiry into whether Cuomo should be impeached.

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