New York

Federal Scrutiny of Cuomo Widens to His Office’s Treatment of Women

Federal prosecutors have broadened their scrutiny of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to include a civil rights investigation after the New York attorney general’s office concluded that he had sexually harassed female employees and fostered a toxic work culture.

In a letter to state officials on Aug. 12 before Mr. Cuomo officially left office, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it had opened an inquiry 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 gender.

The letter was sent to Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, by the Justice Department’s chief of employment litigation and then forwarded to state officials. It said the inquiry was being conducted with the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which was already investigating Mr. Cuomo over other matters.

The investigation is just one of several state and federal inquiries that have engulfed Mr. Cuomo, the once-powerful Democrat who was hailed a national hero amid the coronavirus pandemic but who was ultimately felled by a series of scandals that proved insurmountable.

The existence of the civil rights investigation became public on Thursday with the release of a contract between the state’s executive chamber, which comprises the governor and his top officials, and a prominent law firm that was hired to represent the chamber in several investigations stemming from the last years of Mr. Cuomo’s tenure.

The $2.5 million contract with the firm, Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, said the Justice Department had “undertaken an inquiry related to the sexual harassment claims made against the then-governor.” The contract’s details were first reported by the Times Union of Albany, N.Y.

The seriousness and status of the inquiry were unclear on Friday, but Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, said prosecutors had not contacted the former governor’s lawyers about the investigation since the letter in August.

“Our understanding is that the civil division opened an inquiry in August based upon the A.G.’s politically motivated sham report and we have heard nothing since,” Mr. Azzopardi said, referring to a report issued by Ms. James, that precipitated Mr. Cuomo’s resignation.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

The 165-page report released by Ms. James on Aug. 3 concluded that Mr. Cuomo had sexually harassed current and former female staff members. The workplace culture in the executive chamber, the report found, was rife with fear and intimidation, normalizing Mr. Cuomo’s “frequent flirtations and gender-based comments” and allowing sexual harassment to persist.

Mr. Cuomo’s office, the report said, also failed to properly handle accusations made by at least one of the staff members, Charlotte Bennett, whose complaint was never investigated by state officials as required once she reported it to her supervisor.

The report also detailed how Mr. Cuomo’s top aides and other allies had mobilized to disparage another of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan, by leaking her personnel file to reporters.

When Gov. Kathy Hochul succeeded Mr. Cuomo in August, she immediately vowed to transform the executive chamber’s culture and to adopt policies for rooting out harassment, bullying and discrimination. She also said she would not retain anyone who had worked for Mr. Cuomo and had been implicated in the attorney general’s report.

On Oct. 25, Mr. Hochul announced a series of initiatives, including the creation of a new human resources department in the chamber and the hiring of the law firm Calcagni Kanefsky to handle any claims of unlawful discrimination and harassment.

The executive chamber retained the Willkie Farr firm in September to represent it in other matters that the federal prosecutors in Brooklyn were scrutinizing, including Mr. Cuomo’s handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic and a book about leadership for which he was paid $5.1 million.

The law firm, which has been retained through September 2022, was also hired to handle any requests related to the investigation overseen by Ms. James as well as to a broader impeachment inquiry by the State Assembly that concluded last month.

Both investigations corroborated claims by several women who said Mr. Cuomo had engaged in a series of troubling behavior, including inappropriate comments, sexual harassment and groping. Mr. Cuomo has denied the accusations.

In late October, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office filed a criminal complaint charging Mr. Cuomo with a misdemeanor sex crime for groping the breast of a female aide, Brittanny Commisso, while the two were alone in the Executive Mansion in December 2020. The misdemeanor, for forcible touching, carries a penalty of up to a year in jail.

Mr. Cuomo is scheduled to be arraigned on the misdemeanor charge in Albany City Court on Jan. 7.

Rebecca O’Brien contributed reporting.

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