ALBANY, N.Y. — Aides to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would joke working for him was like the Eagles song “Hotel California”: “You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.”
His resignation in August meant many in his orbit did, finally, get to leave — ensnared in the tentacles of a sexual harassment scandal after giving blind loyalty to the three-term governor, who wielded extraordinary power after 40 years in and around state government.
“His enablers fell off the cliff with him,” said Karen Hinton, a Cuomo aide in the 1990s who has since become a harsh critic.
Now the damage triggered by Cuomo’s alleged conduct keeps growing. It took down his brother Chris, forced out of CNN. And now it’s hit CNN President Jeff Zucker, who quit Wednesday after being outed as having a consensual relationship with a senior staff member.
The staffer, Allison Gollust, was once Cuomo’s communications director.
Zucker’s resignation was precipitated as part of the investigation into the conduct of Chris Cuomo, the former Democratic governor’s brother who was fired from his prime-time CNN show in December after he admitted working with his elder brother and his aides to try to smear his brother’s accusers.
Chris Cuomo’s legal team has raised issues about the relationship between Zucker and Gollust as Cuomo negotiates his exit from the network, two sources with knowledge of the situation told POLITICO on Wednesday.
The case comes after former aides rushed to Andrew Cuomo’s side when he faced nearly a dozen accusations last year from women that he sexually harassed or groped them.
And their efforts to smear his accusers led to their own ouster from positions outside of his office — whether it was former counsel Alphonso David being forced out at as head the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights groups; Jim Malatras, the chancellor of the State University of New York; or the leaders of Time’s Up, which was born out of the #MeToo movement.
And even now, nearly six months after the governor left office, the ripple effect of the scandal continues to persist.
A tight inner circle
The fall of Andrew Cuomo and those around him illustrates a mantra once said by a former top aide: “Get along, and kill.”
It was a loyalty the elder Cuomo brother Andrew learned at his kitchen table in Queens as a young man watching his father, the late three-term New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, said Michael Shnayerson, an author who wrote “The Contender,” a 2015 biography of Andrew Cuomo.
“Throughout his time as governor, an ever growing number of loyalists found themselves tarred by their association with Cuomo,” Shnayerson said in an email.
Cuomo always relied on a cadre of close aides to devise state policy or deal with crises, including during the Covid-19 pandemic when he was accused of eschewing health experts’ recommendations on how to address the virus.
“Many people fell in line for many years, and it’s easy to fall in line. Why jeopardize your career, the political hierarchy? It pays off to be a good team player when there’s a powerful person in the middle,” said Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat who drew the ire of Cuomo when he questioned his Covid response to nursing homes in 2020.
But tying themselves to Cuomo’s star, which rose to new heights in the early months of the pandemic, was ultimately the undoing for many of his closest confidantes.
An investigation by state Attorney General Tish James showed how a number of aides who left state government tried to help Cuomo as the political storm surrounded him, leading to calls for his impeachment and ending in his resignation after 11 years in office.
The shock wave from the governor’s implosion leveled many of the people close to him.
Two loyalists, Rich Bamberger and Josh Vlasto, left their posts at public relations firm Kivvit last August for their involvement on Cuomo’s crisis crew. The heads of Time’s Up, Tina Tchen and Roberta Kaplan, left after it was revealed they offered help to Cuomo amid the sexual harassment allegations.
David at the Human Rights Campaign was also forced out after he was found to have helped craft an unreleased response to allegations by one of Cuomo’s accusers, former aide Lindsey Boylan.
And Malatras was pressured to resign at SUNY after messages were released by the attorney general’s office that showed he disparaged Boylan over her critiques of the Cuomo administration prior to her sexual harassment claims.
Hinton said Cuomo loyalists appeared to buy his explanations about his conduct, which recently five district attorneys found did not warrant criminal charges.
“He always has a justification. People around him, they want to keep their jobs, they want to stay there, so they accept the justification,” said Hinton, who worked for Cuomo when he led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Troubles at CNN
That loyalty to Cuomo extended to his younger brother, Chris, who has had an unwavering allegiance to his older brother. With a 13-year age difference, the elder Cuomo served as a father figure.
In the early months of the pandemic, CNN broke from its previous rules and let Chris Cuomo interview Andrew Cuomo on the prime-time show that bolstered the governor’s profile at a time when his daily press briefings were televised nationally and fueled talk that the governor could run for president.
Despite some apprehension from the governor and his staff, Gollust and Zucker were instrumental in securing the ongoing TV spots with the brothers, Erik Wemple, The Washington Post media critic, wrote Wednesday on Twitter. Gollust was the governor’s communications director for four months in 2012, before she left to join Zucker at CNN.
The brotherly banter on CNN soon took a nosedive when the governor’s scandal brewed.
“I’m family first, job second,” Chris Cuomo said on the air last May when his role working with Cuomo aides to help his brother was revealed. He acknowledged his dual role as journalist and brother “was a problem for CNN. It will not happen again.”
The larger extent of his role, such as reaching out to journalists to find out what stories they were working on and trying to find dirt on his brother’s accusers, wasn’t revealed until months later — leading to his ouster at year’s end.
Chris Cuomo’s lawyers had sent a letter asking CNN to preserve messages between Zucker, Gollust, Andrew Cuomo and the former governor’s staff, The New York Times reported.
“I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years,” Zucker wrote in a memo sent to company staff Wednesday. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”
Hinton said Zucker’s demise and ties to the Cuomos is another example of powerful people tied to an extraordinarily influential governor who they simply assumed was destined to stay in power.
At the time, she said, “They think he will remain governor. They need him.”
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