“We Need to Hold Him Accountable”: After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Legislators Search for Ways to Respond

With the state ethics commission widely seen as controlled by the governor, legislators are looking for other ways to investigate the allegations.

Akash Mehta   ·   February 25, 2021
Legislators were weighing options including authorizing the Attorney General to investigate the allegations and using the legislature's subpoena powers to conduct its own investigation. | Governor's Press Office

Lindsey Boylan, a former aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo, published an essay Wednesday morning making detailed allegations of sexual harassment against the governor, including that he asked her to play strip poker, frequently touched her inappropriately, instructed other staffers to relay sexual innuendos, and kissed her on the lips.

Legislators who spoke to New York Focus on Wednesday were searching for a way to forcefully respond to the allegations.

"These are serious allegations, I believe Lindsey, and I think it's really dangerous for someone who has allegedly done these things to be in this position of power," Senate Women’s Committee Chair Julia Salazar told New York Focus.

“I think we should be addressing them in a very serious manner, but I don’t know what will happen,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “It’s vital that we do. Because if we’re the party of good government—of people who believe women, who believe that the workplace should be equitable—then we need to hold him accountable.”

Assemblymember Ron Kim, who has been at the center of an unfolding scandal around Cuomo’s cover-up of deaths in nursing homes, told New York Focus that the legislature must act. “I hope that Senate and Assembly leadership will finally stop cutting back room deals with Cuomo and hold his abusive and corrupt conduct accountable,” he said.

But what would it mean concretely to hold Cuomo accountable?

The legislature has three best options at its disposal, Salazar said. It could use its subpoena power to conduct its own investigation, push for Attorney General Letitia James to launch an investigation, or begin impeachment proceedings.

Some legislators, including Assemblymembers Niou, Zohran Mamdani, Dan Quart, and Harvey Epstein, echoed a demand by the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a project launched by former legislative staffers to advocate for anti-harassment reforms, for an “immediate independent investigation into Governor Cuomo’s workplace behavior, conducted by an entity over which Cuomo does not have any appointment or supervisory powers.”

But it’s unclear what body would have the authority and ability to conduct an independent investigation.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing within New York State government that exists to do that,” Erica Vladimer, a co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, told New York Focus.

“This is not the first time that I’ve spoken with a reporter where we have to ask the question, ‘where does an allegation like this go?’ It shows that no real appropriate venue exists for government staff to get the justice they deserve, and for their perpetrators to be held accountable,” Vladimer said.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, is the primary body responsible for investigating wrongdoing by elected officials. But JCOPE has long been widely seen in Albany as hobbled by cronyism and effectively controlled by the governor.

“JCOPE is not only politically controlled in its appointment process, but it has this totally unique idea that two of the governor’s appointees can veto an investigation or finding related to him, his staff, or other executive officials,” said Evan Davis, a constitutional lawyer who cowrote a report on the ethics commission.

“NEVER trust JCOPE,” Boylan tweeted on Wednesday, hours before she published the allegations, in reference to a Times Union report on the governor’s new pick for JCOPE chairman, a former Cuomo aide who previously ran a program critics say defended the governor against troublesome information disclosure requests.

JCOPE was charged in 2018 with investigating another high-profile sexual harassment allegation in Albany when Vladimer accused former Senator Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her. Two years later, that investigation is still ongoing.

In 2018, Cuomo called for JCOPE to investigate the allegation against Klein. “Every allegation of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously,” he said at that time. The governor’s press office did not respond to a question on whether he would call for an investigation into Boylan’s allegations. In a statement, press secretary Caitlin Girouard called the allegations “quite simply false.”

Both Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie issued statements indicating that they were troubled by the allegations, but neither called for specific measures to be taken.

The situation may add new fuel to state Senator Liz Krueger’s push to replace JCOPE with an independent Integrity Commission appointed largely by the judiciary. In a statement calling for a “thorough, transparent, and independent investigation” into Boylan’s allegations, Krueger said that JCOPE was “compromised and ineffective” and that the best “long-term solution” is to form the Integrity Commission.

But replacing JCOPE would take a constitutional amendment, which would take years to enact. “Absent that, we may be forced to depend on JCOPE, where the governor’s appointees will need to be excluded from voting against an investigation,” Krueger said.

John Kaehny, executive director of the watchdog group Reinvent Albany, said that legislative committees in either chamber could conduct their own investigation, subpoenaing the governor’s text messages and other evidence.

“That would probably create a constitutional crisis,” Kaehny said. “If the governor just said no and said ‘I’m invoking executive privilege,’ it could be tied up in the courts for a while. And by the way, the Chief Judge is appointed by the governor.”

Davis argued that the best option was for the legislature to hire outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation, similar to how schools often hire law firms to investigate faculty members accused of sexual abuse. “Using an outside firm with expertise in these kinds of matters makes the most sense, to put it above politics,” Davis said.

Yet another option that some legislators were looking into on Wednesday night was the potential to give the Attorney General the legal grounds to launch an investigation. “After reviewing all options, without a doubt we need an independent investigation and we should legislate to give the state Attorney General office the tools to prosecute such abusive behavior,” Kim told New York Focus.

Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout said Cuomo should issue the Attorney General’s office a ‘standing referral’ authorizing it to investigate sexual misconduct, and some Republican state legislators called for the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct an investigation.

Davis wasn’t confident these options would work, noting that the Attorney General could generally only prosecute criminal claims and that the only exceptions involved the governor playing a continuing role in the investigation.

Beyond Cuomo himself, Boylan’s account demonstrates the broader culture of sexual harassment in his office and in Albany, Vladimer said. She said it highlights the need for the legislature to pass a package of anti-harassment legislation this year, and in particular a bill to expand New York’s human rights law to the staff of elected and appointed officials.

Niou, the Assembly sponsor of that bill, recounted experiences of sexual harassment she said were extremely common in Albany until recently, when more women were elected.

“Since I became a staffer in 2012, I have had my ass grabbed; I have had people say that I was very exotic, chasing me down the halls; I have had people peek in and try to see what I look like, because I was on a hot-or-not list; there was a legislator who commented that Ron [Kim] and I were extremely hot together, and that they would love to see us f--k,” she said.

“It was a very different Albany. And I think that he still operates in that Albany,” Niou said, referring to the governor.

Akash Mehta co-founded New York Focus and is the organization’s editor-in-chief. He grew up in New York City, and in another life he was a member of his local community board and a policy fellow at the City Council.
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