Cuomo, Contrite Over Sex Harassment Accusations, Refuses to Resign

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ALBANY, N.Y. — In his first public remarks since a sexual harassment scandal enveloped his administration, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Wednesday that he was embarrassed by his actions and apologized, but said that he would not resign from office.

Andrew Cuomo wearing a suit and tie: Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces accusations from three women, including two former state employees, made uncomfortable by his behavior.

 Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces accusations from three women, including two former state employees, made uncomfortable by his behavior.Appearing at the State Capitol, the governor sought to quell the outrage over his actions regarding three young women — including accusations of sexual harassment from two state workers, and another of unwanted touching and kissing at a wedding — as a growing chorus of his fellow Democrats called for him to step aside.

Mr. Cuomo, his voice appearing to crack at times, said that he wanted New Yorkers to “hear from me directly on this.”

“I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and frankly embarrassed by it and that’s not easy to say but that’s the truth.”

He stressed that he “never touched anyone inappropriately.”

“I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said. “And I certainly never meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain. That is the last thing I would ever want to do.”

In his remarks and in response to a series of questions, Mr. Cuomo expressed contrition — a rarity in a politician known for his sometimes bruising and abrasive personality — saying he has “learned from what has been an incredibly difficult situation for me as well as other people.”

“I will be the better for this experience,” he said.

Few, if any, top officials have vociferously defended Mr. Cuomo, with most Democrats repeatedly calling for an independent investigation into the claims, now to be overseen by the state attorney general, Letitia James.

The news conference on Wednesday was the governor’s first briefing in nine days, the longest he had gone without taking questions from reporters since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The governor, a third-term Democrat, had previously sought to explain that some of his past remarks and questions to staff had been misconstrued, and “may have been insensitive or too personal.”

“I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement on Sunday. “To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”

That statement fell short for many, including Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide of Mr. Cuomo who told The New York Times that the governor asked her a series of sexually charged questions during a private meeting last June, including whether she was monogamous and had slept with older men. Shaken and upset, Ms. Bennett reported the incident to Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff, and was promptly transferred to another part of the state government.

On Monday, she characterized the governor’s initial apology — and an aborted attempt to install an associate of a top aide to conduct an investigation — as a craven attempt to avoid responsibility.

“These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood,” Ms. Bennett wrote. “They are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice.”

Ms. Bennett on Wednesday was similarly unimpressed by the governor, who at one point said he was specifically apologizing to “the young woman who worked here” but did not say her name.

“The governor’s press conference was full of falsehoods and inaccurate information, and New Yorkers deserve better,” said Debra S. Katz, a prominent harassment lawyer who is representing Ms. Bennett.

Ms. Katz added that she expected that the attorney general’s report would “demonstrate that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or to ensure that corrective measures were taken, in violation of their legal requirements.”

The turmoil in Albany began last week with Lindsey Boylan, who worked in the Cuomo administration from 2015 to 2018. She published an essay detailing a series of disturbing interactions with Mr. Cuomo, including an instance when she said the governor suggested they “play strip poker.” Ms. Boylan also said the governor gave her an unsolicited kiss on the lips following a one-on-one meeting with him in his Manhattan office in 2018.

“As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips,” wrote Ms. Boylan, who is running for Manhattan borough president. “I was in shock, but I kept walking.”

The governor’s office resoundingly denied Ms. Boylan’s claim.

On Wednesday, Ms. Boylan, too, appeared to reject the governor’s extended apology, questioning his failure to recognize that his actions toward women were inherently inappropriate, no matter his intent.

On Monday, Anna Ruch, a 33-year-old who served in the Obama administration, described an unwanted advance from the governor at a wedding, including touching her bare back, cupping her face, and planting an unwanted kiss on her cheek.

Asked about the incident on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo said that kissing and hugging was his “usual and customary way of greeting,” but that he apologized if it had made Ms. Ruch uncomfortable, reiterating it was not his intention to do so.

“If they were offended by it, then it was wrong,” Mr. Cuomo said. “If they were offended by it, I apologize. If they were hurt by it, I apologize. If they felt pain from it, I apologize. I apologize. I did not intend it. I didn’t mean it that way, but if that’s how they felt, that’s all that matters and I apologize.”

Ms. James, a Democrat, is expected to soon hire an outside law firm to spearhead a civil investigation into sexual harassment allegations made against the governor.

The investigation could be broad enough to include potential claims that have yet to emerge. Investigators will have subpoena power to request office records, emails and text messages, as well as witnesses, including Mr. Cuomo, to testify under oath.

Lawmakers have privately speculated that the investigation’s outcome could increase the pressure on Mr. Cuomo to step down or influence his decision to seek re-election next year.

As state attorney general, Mr. Cuomo investigated two governors, David A. Paterson and Eliot Spitzer. In both cases, the investigations were politically devastating for the governors, helping seal their political careers.

“I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts of the attorney general report before forming an opinion,” Mr. Cuomo said on Wednesday.

Mr. Cuomo is currently navigating another crisis: allegations that his administration withheld key data on coronavirus-related nursing home deaths to cover up the full extent of the death toll in such facilities.

Last month, during a private meeting with state lawmakers, the governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted to withholding the data out of fear it would be used against the governor by the Trump Justice Department at the time.

The disclosure led federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. to open an inquiry into the matter.

There were some potential signs of fatigue in Mr. Cuomo’s inner circle: Just before Mr. Cuomo spoke on Wednesday, Gareth Rhodes, a top coronavirus adviser, announced that he would leave the governor’s task force confronting the disease.

Mr. Rhodes, whose 2019 wedding in Manhattan was where Mr. Cuomo kissed Ms. Ruch, said his decision was made last week.

Politico also reported that a press aide, Will Burns, informed the governor’s office on Tuesday that he would leave the executive chamber.

On Wednesday, Ms. Katz noted the departures, and repeated Ms. Bennett’s previous call for others who may have experienced or witnessed harassment by the governor to speak out.

“If they know anything or have experienced this themselves,” Ms. Katz said, “we call on them to come forward and report this misconduct.”

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