Saturday night, the New York Times published allegations from a second woman who says Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed her. Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide to the governor, recounts a pattern of inappropriate conduct, including probing questions about her sex life. In one exchange, Bennett told the Times, Cuomo inquired into her interest in older men, while making clear he was willing to date a woman as young as her. Bennett’s contemporaneous text messages lend support to her account.
After the Times published its article, a series of New York politicians—including the lieutenant governor and the leading candidates for New York City’s mayor—called for an independent investigation into her allegations. Usually, I’d say that was exactly the right response. But here, I’m not so certain, for the simple reason that the governor doesn’t actually appear to dispute any of the facts in Bennett’s account. The question, then, should be simply whether those facts are enough to justify Cuomo’s resignation or removal.
Cuomo hasn’t explicitly confessed to harassing Bennett. But the statement he released Saturday night is most notable for what it doesn’t say: that Bennett’s account is inaccurate. The governor insists he tried to act as a “mentor” and “never made advances towards Ms. Bennett nor did [he] intend to act in any way that was inappropriate.” That’s not a denial. There is no conflict between his story and hers: the governor might not have actually been trying to have sex with Bennett, and might not have consciously meant to transgress any boundaries, and still have said all the things Bennett reports. And those comments are textbook sexual harassment, regardless of Cuomo’s subjective intent.
Presumably, if Cuomo believes Bennett is lying, he’d have said so. It’s not like he doesn’t know how. His statement Saturday stands in contrast to his sharp denial of allegations by another former staffer, Lindsay Boylan, which the governor’s press secretary told reporters “are quite simply false.”
Saturday, Cuomo called for an “outside review” of Bennett’s claims and “ask[ed] all New Yorkers to await the findings of th[at] review so that they know the facts before making any judgments.” There’s been spirited dispute since about what would constitute a truly independent inquiry into the state’s most powerful elected official. But the more immediate question is what good any investigation would do with respect to Bennett’s charges, with Cuomo appearing to dispute only his motivations.
Investigations are crucially important when facts are in contest. But here, apparently, they aren’t. And no interviews or records are needed to figure out whether Cuomo’s treatment of Bennett was acceptable. It clearly is not. All that remains is for New York’s leadership, and its public, to decide whether they think Cuomo should continue to be governor after sexually harassing his aide.
New York politicians might prefer to avoid that question. It can be more comfortable to talk about process than substance. It’s easier to put out statements about how to make a decision rather than actually decide how bad is too bad, and what the correct consequence for Cuomo’s actions should be. In other words, the calls for an unnecessary investigation allow public figures to punt the more politically difficult question for another day.
Cuomo would surely welcome the extra time, during which public attention, and anger, might subside. Months from now, the allegations will be old news. Cuomo may be on more stable ground politically, having put some distance between himself and his underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. At that point, even a damning post-investigation report might not be enough for risk-averse officials to remove Cuomo, whose grip on Albany has seemed, until recently, to be permanent and absolute. The focus on unnecessary process, then, might ultimately serve to foreclose a grappling with the substance of Cuomo’s abuse.
We’ve seen versions of this strategy employed in defense of other powerful men. In 2017, after the Times reported that Louis C.K. had harassed multiple women in the comedy world, he admitted “these stories are true.” Like the governor is apparently doing now, the comedian tried to reframe the allegations, downplaying their severity, but he didn’t dispute what he’d done.
Yet less than a year later, Louis C.K. was back on stage at the famed Comedy Cellar. Its owner, Noam Dworman, didn’t defend his decision to host C.K.’s return on the merits by explaining, for example, that he thought C.K. deserved a comeback. Rather, he justified it on the basis that there hadn’t been an investigation. “I can’t compel testimony, I can’t punish perjury, I don’t have a forensics lab. If I’m judge and jury, I’m going to get it wrong,” he wrote in a statement.
But, of course, there was nothing to investigate. C.K. had confessed! Dworman’s handwaving about process just allowed him to dodge the question of whether it was right to welcome a harasser back to the stage so soon, without any apparent reform or repair.
We shouldn’t allow nervous politicians called to comment on Bennett’s account to punt in the same way.
Certainly, if Cuomo clarifies that he does, in fact, dispute Bennett’s allegations, he is owed an impartial investigation, as are his alleged victims. A procedurally sound inquiry, shielded from political influence, will be more likely to get to the truth, promote public faith in the outcome, and encourage others to come forward in the future. Such an investigation into Boylan’s allegations, which Cuomo has categorically denied, is certainly necessary. A broader inquiry into the governor’s conduct toward employees would be wise, too. If there are already two alleged victims, there’s good reason to think there may be more.
But every reason that Cuomo might prefer a delay is a reason for public officials to avoid dragging their feet. If the governor disputes Bennett’s account, an investigation is necessary. If he doesn’t, politicians need to decide whether they think Cuomo should be removed in light of that conduct—and say so, now.
I, for one, think he should. I bet a bunch of voters agree.