New York Governor Cuomo backs down on plan to pick lawyer to review his alleged sexual misconduct


FILE PHOTO: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at a vaccination site in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., February 22, 2021. Seth Wenig/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

(Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's office backed down on its plan to choose an investigator to review sexual harassment allegations against him, saying on Sunday it had instead asked the state's attorney general and a senior judge to pick a lawyer to conduct an independent review.

Cuomo, one of the nation's most well-known Democratic politicians whose popularity soared during the early months of the pandemic, has faced a string of controversies in recent weeks including over his administration's handling of COVID-19 death toll data from the state's nursing homes.

A second former aide came forward on Saturday to accuse Cuomo of sexual misconduct - just days after another former employee made similar accusations - sparking criticism from fellow Democrats that ranged from calls for his resignation to appeals for an independent probe into his behavior.

Responding to the latest allegations, the governor denied making any sexual advances and initially ordered what he said would be a "full and thorough outside review" led by a former federal judge, Barbara Jones.

But that failed to satisfy leading Democratic figures including U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who said she found the accounts of Cuomo's former aides Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett "extremely serious and painful to read."

"There must be an independent investigation - not one led by an individual selected by the Governor," Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter on Sunday before Cuomo's office reversed course.

There were also demands for an independent probe from several other Democrats. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told CNN's State of the Union that President Joe Biden supported such an investigation. Others, including New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, went further, echoing Republican calls for Cuomo to resign.

Under growing pressure, Cuomo's office said that while Jones had a "stellar record" it wanted to avoid "even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics".

As a result, it said, the governor had asked New York's Attorney General Letitia James and Janet DiFiore, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, to select an independent lawyer to conduct a thorough review and issue a public report.

"All members of the Governor's office will cooperate fully," Cuomo's special counsel, Beth Garvey, said in a statement. "We will have no further comment until the report is issued."

ATTORNEY GENERAL WANTS REFERRAL

A spokesman for James said she was dissatisfied with Cuomo's statement and that the governor must make an "official referral" to the attorney general's office, which would give her subpoena power and enable "an investigation with real teeth."

"He's suggesting a voluntary review without subpoena power, without the ability to compel witnesses, without the ability to guarantee we get documents," the spokesman said.

A representative for Cuomo did not immediately comment on the attorney general's request for a referral.

In the latest misconduct allegations, Bennett, who worked for the governor as an executive assistant and policy advisor for nearly two years until November 2020, told the New York Times that he had asked her about her sex life, including whether she was monogamous in her relationships and if she had ever had sex with older men.

Her account was published days after Boylan, another former aide, wrote in an online essay that the governor made several "inappropriate gestures" toward her while she worked for the state government from 2015 to 2018, including sending her a rose on Valentine's Day and kissing her on the mouth.

Cuomo has denied wrongdoing in both cases. Reuters could not independently verify the women's accounts. Attempts to reach both women have been unsuccessful.

Cuomo rose to national prominence for his daily televised briefings early on during the coronavirus pandemic, when New York was the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States.

The allegations about his conduct with female aides follow a report issued in January by James' office that cast doubt on his administration's handling of the coronavirus crisis in nursing homes. It said the state health department significantly undercounted the death toll and implemented policies that may have contributed to it.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday that there now needed to be two independent investigations, one into Cuomo's conduct and another into the nursing home deaths.

"Questions of this magnitude cannot hang over the heads of New Yorkers as we fight off a pandemic and economic crisis," de Blasio said in a statement.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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