Federal prosecutors have broadened their scrutiny of former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to include a civil rights investigation after the New York attorney general’s office found he sexually harassed female employees and fostered a culture of toxic work.
In a letter to state officials on August 12 before Mr. Cuomo formally left office, the Department of Justice’s civil rights division said it had opened an investigation into reports of sexual harassment and retaliation in the governor’s office, according to two people who reviewed the letter. .
Investigators, the letter said, were seeking to determine whether the governor’s office had engaged in a “pattern and practice of discrimination and retaliation” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a federal law that protects against harassment based on a person’s sex. .
The letter was sent to Letitia James, New York attorney general, by the Department of Justice’s labor litigation chief, and then passed on to state officials. He said the investigation was being conducted with the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which was already investigating Mr. Cuomo on other matters.
The inquiry is just one of many state and federal inquiries that have engulfed Mr Cuomo, the once powerful Democrat who was hailed as a national hero amid the coronavirus pandemic but who was ultimately gunned down by a series scandals that have turned out to be insurmountable.
The existence of the civil rights inquiry became public on Thursday with the publication of a contract between the state’s executive chamber, which includes the governor and his senior officials, and a leading law firm that has been hired to represent the chamber in several investigations arising from the final years of Mr. Cuomo’s tenure.
The $ 2.5 million contract with Willkie, Farr & Gallagher said the Justice Department had “entered into an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against the then governor.” Details of the contract were first reported by The Times Union in Albany, NY
The seriousness and status of the investigation was unclear on Friday, but Richard Azzopardi, spokesman for Mr Cuomo, said prosecutors had not contacted lawyers for the former governor about the investigation since the August letter.
“We understand that the Civil Division opened an investigation in August based on the AG’s politically motivated false report and we have not heard from since,” Azzopardi said, referring to a report released by Ms. James, who precipitated Mr. Cuomo’s resignation. .
A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office declined to comment.
The 165-page report released by Ms James on August 3 found that Mr Cuomo sexually harassed current and former female members of staff. According to the report, the workplace culture within the executive chamber was filled with fear and intimidation, normalizing Mr. Cuomo’s âfrequent flirtations and sexist commentsâ and allowing sexual harassment to persist.
Mr Cuomo’s office, according to the report, also failed to properly address accusations made by at least one of the staff, Charlotte Bennett, whose complaint was never investigated by state officials as required once she reports it to her supervisor.
The report also detailed how key aides to Mr. Cuomo and other allies mobilized to denigrate another of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan, by leaking his personal file to reporters.
When Governor Kathy Hochul took over from Cuomo in August, she immediately committed to transforming the culture of the executive chamber and adopting policies to eliminate harassment, bullying and discrimination. She also said she would not hold back anyone who had worked for Mr Cuomo and was allegedly involved in the attorney general’s report.
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On October 25, Hochul announced a series of initiatives, including the creation of a new human resources department within the chamber and the hiring of the Calcagni Kanefsky law firm to deal with any complaints of illegal discrimination and of harassment.
The executive chamber retained the Willkie Farr cabinet in September to represent it in other cases Brooklyn federal prosecutors were reviewing, including Mr. Cuomo’s handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic and a book on the leadership for which he was paid $ 5.1 million.
The law firm, which was held until September 2022, was also hired to deal with any requests relating to the investigation overseen by Ms James as well as a broader impeachment inquiry led by the House of Commons. ‘State that ended last month.
Both investigations corroborated claims by several women who said that Mr. Cuomo engaged in a series of disturbing behaviors, including inappropriate comments, sexual harassment and trial and error. Mr. Cuomo has denied the charges.
In late October, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office filed a criminal complaint accusing Mr Cuomo of a sex offense for groping the chest of an assistant, Brittany Commisso, while the two were alone in the executive mansion in December 2020. The offense of forced touching is punishable by up to one year in prison.
Mr. Cuomo is due to be tried for misdemeanor in Albany City Court on January 7.
Rebecca O’Brien contributed reporting.