When a team of outside investigators begins to examine sex harassment allegations lodged against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, its scope may be far broader than first anticipated.
The team, which will be hired by Letitia James, the New York State attorney general, will have far-reaching subpoena powers to request troves of documents and compel witnesses, including the governor, to testify under oath.
The independent inquiry may also scrutinize not just the sexual harassment accusations made by two former aides last week, but potential claims from other women as well.
In the end, which is likely to be months from now, the investigators will be required to produce a final report, the results of which could be politically devastating for Mr. Cuomo.
“The end game is that a report that found him culpable would bring pressure to bear on him personally, on his regime, on the Legislature to act,” said Nina Pirrotti, a lawyer who specializes in employment law and sexual harassment cases. “But I don’t exactly know how it will play out.”
Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, is navigating one of the most precarious and uncertain periods of his more than 10 years in office, just months after he had emerged as a national leader early in the coronavirus pandemic.
The governor is facing a federal probe into his administration’s decision to withhold data on nursing home deaths, a scandal that has led to calls for impeachment and has spurred state legislators to seriously consider curbing the emergency powers they granted him at the beginning of the pandemic.
But the harassment accusations could be even more damaging for a governor who has prided himself on advancing protections for women in the workplace.
The first accusation came from Lindsey Boylan, who used to work for his administration. Ms. Boylan published an essay on Wednesday that detailed a series of unsettling encounters she said she had with Mr. Cuomo, including an instance when she said he gave her an unsolicited kiss on the lips.
Then, on Saturday, The New York Times published an article about Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former entry-level staffer in the governor’s office who accused him of asking invasive questions, including whether she was monogamous and had sex with older men. She said she interpreted the remarks as sexual advances.
Mr. Cuomo’s office denied Ms. Boylan’s allegations at the time. On Sunday, following Ms. Bennett’s account, Mr. Cuomo issued a statement in which he denied propositioning or touching anyone inappropriately, but apologized for workplace comments that he said “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
On Monday, following public back-and-forth over who would conduct the investigation, Ms. James received the governor’s authorization to open an inquiry under a section of state law that allows her office to “inquire into matters concerning the public peace, public safety and public justice.”
The claims from both women are now at the center of that investigation, the contours of which are still materializing but could prod deeply into the inner workings of the governor’s office and how sexual misconduct allegations are handled there.
Mr. Cuomo’s office has indicated that the governor’s office would “voluntarily cooperate fully” and that it had instructed all state employees to do so as well.
Investigators will ultimately produce a public report, which is bound to include a summary and analysis of their findings, maybe even recommendations. Experts said the civil inquiry could look at whether Mr. Cuomo violated the state’s human rights laws and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a federal law that protects against harassment because of a person’s sex.
“These women do have the option, potentially, to bring claims against their employer, the State of New York, for Governor Cuomo’s conduct,” Ms. Pirrotti said, adding that the facts in the report could help victims recover economic and emotional distress damages.
As investigators corroborate details, she said the inquiry could “widen and widen” to include other sexual harassment claims that might surface during the investigation. On Monday, a third woman, Anna Ruch, came forward and said that she was “confused and shocked and embarrassed” when Mr. Cuomo asked to kiss her at a wedding reception.
In a referral letter on Monday to the attorney general, Beth Garvey, a special counsel and senior adviser to the governor, said the inquiry would broadly look into “allegations of and circumstances surrounding sexual harassment claims made against the governor.”
Ms. James, a Democrat, said her office would oversee “a rigorous and independent investigation” but would hire a law firm to spearhead it, a move that many saw as an attempt to avoid any appearance that politics would influence the investigation. The governor endorsed Ms. James’s run for attorney general in 2018, and she has been rumored as a potential candidate to challenge Mr. Cuomo in a primary next year, when he would be up for re-election.
Ms. James had not selected an independent law firm as of Monday.
Lawyers from the firm would be deputized and will have the power to subpoena witnesses, as well as any documents, records, papers and books relevant to the investigation. Failure to comply with a subpoena could result in a misdemeanor.
Kevin Mintzer, a Manhattan-based lawyer who has represented numerous women in sexual harassment cases, said that while there is no single way to conduct an investigation like the one Mr. Cuomo will face, he would expect it to proceed along the same lines used by those run by plaintiffs’ lawyers like himself and by companies undertaking internal inquiries.
First, Mr. Mintzer said, investigators are likely to assemble any relevant documents, including emails and text messages that bear not only the accusations brought by Ms. Boylan and Ms. Bennett, but also on those made by any other potential accusers.
Then, Mr. Mintzer said, witness interviews could follow, as investigators decide who they want to speak with formally and under oath.
At some point, the focus of the probe will turn directly to Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Mintzer said, though that is likely to happen only once investigators are fully versed in the case.
“Before they question the governor — an event of obvious significance — they will be well prepared with what the documents and other people have said,” said Mr. Mintzer.
The contents of the report are likely to determine Mr. Cuomo’s fate, but some state legislators have already signaled that impeachment proceedings could be considered.
“We’ll wait for the report, but I do believe that something needs to be done ultimately and whether or not the governor can continue is an open question,” State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat and deputy majority leader in the upper chamber, told NY1 on Monday.
Some critics have also raised questions about the governor’s potential influence over the investigation.
Some noted that, under state law, the governor would be required to receive a weekly report on the investigation. The law also says the governor must countersign any checks used to pay for the inquiry, which the Legislature is supposed to provide funds for.
“I think Letitia James is independent, but the way the structure is set up, it’s hard to retain independence when you have to report to the governor and the governor is involved with the finances,” said State Senator Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Island and a former prosecutor. “It’s especially perverse when it is the governor himself who is under the microscope.”
Mr. Kaminsky has introduced legislation to allow the state attorney general to independently commence criminal investigations without a referral, likening it to the authority local district attorneys possess. “It’s not revolutionary,” he said.
Ms. Garvey, the special counsel to the governor, told Ms. James in the referral letter that the governor would waive the weekly reports “due to the nature of this review.” Mr. Kaminsky, however, questioned whether such an exception was permitted under state law.
It is not clear how long the investigation might take. Mr. Mintzer said that the timeline will likely be driven as much by political considerations as by legal issues.
“This is a matter of immense public interest and people want to get to the bottom of it,” he said, “and I’m sure that will be the mandate from the attorney general.”
Jonah Bromwich and Alan Feuer contributed reporting.
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