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Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) Speaks after Damning New York Attorney General Report on Sexual Harassment; Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) Denies Sexual harassment after Damning Report. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 3, 2021 - 13:00   ET




ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Ana Cabrera in New York.

We are following major breaking news. Any moment now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will speak for the first time since the state attorney general -- let's listen in.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): -- that I interfered. I said I would hold my tongue, and I have, making only limited comments. It has been a hard and a painful period for me and my family, especially as others feed ugly stories to the press. But I cooperated with the review, and I can now finally share the truth.

My attorney, who is a nonpolitical former federal prosecutor, has done a response to each allegation, and the facts are much different than what has been portrayed. That document is available on my website. If you are interested, please take the time to read the facts and decide for yourself.

First, I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances. I am 63 years old. I've lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am, and that's not who I have ever been.

There is one complaint that has been made that bothered me most. That was a complaint made by a young woman, Charlotte Bennnett, who worked in my office. And it's important to me that you fully understand the situation. Charlotte worked in my office last year as an assistant. She was smart, talented and eager to learn. She identified herself to me as a survivor of sexual assault.

She said that she came to work in my administration because of all the progress we had made in fighting sexual assault. She talked about the personal trauma that she endured and how she was handling it. I could see how it affected her. I could see her pain.

People now ask me, why was I even talking to this young woman if I knew she was dealing with such issues? Why did I even engage with her? That is the obvious and fair question, and one I have thought a lot about. The truth is that her story resonated deeply with me. I had heard the same story before with the same ugliness, the same injustice, the same damage. Not only had I heard the story before, I had lived with the story before.

My own family member is a survivor of sexual assault in high school. I have watched her live and suffer with the trauma. I would do anything to make it go away for her. But it never really goes away. I spent countless days and nights working through these issues with her and therapists and counselors.

I'm governor of the state of New York, but I felt powerless to help, and felt that I had failed her. I couldn't take the pain away. I still can't.

And this young woman brought it all back. She's about the same age. I thought I had learned a lot about the issue from my family's experience. I thought I could help her work through a difficult time. I did ask her questions I don't normally ask people. I did ask her how she was doing and how she was feeling. And I did ask questions to try to see if she had positive support of dating relationships.

I know too well the manifestations of sexual assault trauma and the damage that it can do in the aftermath. I was trying to make sure she was working her way through it the best she could.

I thought I had learned enough and had enough personal experience to help her, but I was wrong.


I have heard Charlotte and her lawyer, and I understand what they are saying. But they read into comments that I made and draw inferences that I never meant. They ascribe motives I never had. And simply put, they heard things that I just didn't say.

Charlotte, I want you to know that I am truly and deeply sorry. I brought my personal experience into the workplace, and I shouldn't have done that. I was trying to help. Obviously, I didn't.

I am even more sorry that I further complicated the situation. My goal was the exact opposite. I wish nothing but good for you and for all survivors of sexual assault.

There is another complaint I want to address from a woman in my office who said that I groped her in my home office. Let me be clear. That never happened. She wants anonymity, and I respect that. So I am limited, but what I can say, but her lawyer has suggested that she will file a legal claim for damages. That will be decided in a court of law.

Trial by newspaper or biased reviews are not the way to find the facts in this matter. I welcome the opportunity for a full and fair review before a judge and a jury because this just did not happen.

Other complainants raised against me questions that have sought to unfairly characterize and weaponize everyday interactions that I've had with any number of New Yorkers. The New York Times published a front page picture of me touching a woman's face at a wedding and then kissing her on the cheek. That is not front page news. I've been making the same gesture in public all my life. I actually learned it from my mother and from my father. It is meant to convey warmth, nothing more.

Indeed, there are hundreds, if not, thousands of photos of me using the exact same gesture. I do it with everyone, black and white, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, powerful people, friends, strangers, people who I meet on the street.

After the event, the woman told the press that she took offense at the gesture. And for that, I apologize.

Another woman stated that I kissed her on the forehead at our Christmas party, and that I said ciao bella. Now, I don't remember doing it but I'm sure that I did. I do kiss people on the forehead. I do kiss people on the cheek. I do kiss people on the hand. I do embrace people. I do hug people, men and women. I do, on occasion say, ciao bella. On occasion, I do slip and say, sweetheart or darling or honey. I do banter with people. I do tell jokes, some better than others. I am the same person in public as I am in private.

You have seen me do it on T.V. through all my briefings and for 40 years before that. I try to put people at ease. I try to make them smile. I try to connect with them. And I try to show my appreciation and my friendship. I now understand that there are generational or cultural perspectives that frankly I hadn't fully appreciated, and I have learned from this.

Now, the state already has an advanced sexual harassment training program for all employees, including me.


But I want New York State government to be a model of office behavior. And I brought in an expert to design a new sexual harassment policy and procedures and to train the whole team, myself included. I accept responsibility and we are making changes.

Other complaints relate to the work environment. Now, I have always said my office is a demanding place to work and that it is not for everyone. We work really, really hard. My office is no typical 9:00 to 5:00 government office and I don't want it to be. The stakes we deal with are very high, sometimes even life and death. We have to get the job done. I promised you that I would and I will.

But now, a number of complaints target female managers which smacks to me of a double standard. First, when have you ever seen male managers maligned and villainized for working long hours or holding people accountable or for being tough? A strong male manager is respected and rewarded, but a strong female manager is ridiculed and stereotyped. It is a double standard. It is sexist. And it must be challenged.

Also remember, where we are. Today, we are living in a superheated, if not, toxic political environment. That shouldn't be lost on anyone. Politics and bias are interwoven throughout every aspect of this situation. One would be naive to think otherwise. And New Yorkers are not naive.

I understand these dynamics. My father used to say, God rest his soul, that politics is an ugly business. As usual, he was right. But for my father, and for me, it's worth it. Because despite it all, at the end of the day, we get good things done for people, and that is what really matters.

And for those who were using this moment to score political points or seek publicity or personal gain, I say they actually discredit the legitimate sexual harassment victims that the law was designed to protect.

My last point is this. I say to my daughters all the time that as complicated as life gets is as simple as life is. My job is not about me. My job is about you. What matters to me at the end of the day is getting the most done I can for you. And that is what I do every day. And I will not be distracted from that job.

We have a lot to do. We still have to manage the COVID beast. It is not dead yet. It's not over. We then have to reopen and reimagine our state, because our future is going to be what we make it. I know we can do these things because I know the strength and the character of New Yorkers.

Look at the progress we made on COVID. It is amazing. We went from the highest infection rate in the country to one of the lowest infection rates in the country. Nobody thought that we could do it but New Yorkers did it.

That shows that there's nothing that we can't do when we work together, together, together as one, as one community, as one family, as New Yorkers, we will. Thank you.

Over the past several months --

CABRERA: Okay. Obviously, that was recorded. The governor responding to this damning report, the investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct against the governor came out today by the New York Attorney General's Office, and it found that he, indeed, sexually harassed multiple women, current and former employees in his office, and people outside his office as well.


I want to get to our legal experts. We also have political analysts standing by and our reporters are with us as well.

And that's where I want to start with you, Shimon, because he just responded to all the allegations. We didn't have time before that recording started to give our viewers the update on all the allegations that he faces, and what was found in this report. So fill us in. SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and reporters obviously weren't allowed inside the room to ask questions. The attorney general and the two attorneys who oversaw this investigation that she brought in stood before reporters and actually took questions about the report and they said they found the women to be credible.

The governor, of course, taking issue with some of these findings. He's saying the facts are much different than what has been portrayed. He's saying that he didn't touch anyone inappropriately. And then he talked about what bothered him most about some of the groping allegations and the fact is that he's just denying that the way the attorney general is portraying what occurred here for quite some time, that just did not happen.

He said that the inferences that were made here by some of these women, as portrayed to the attorney general, is something that he never meant. He also said that these are not motives that he ever had.

What the attorney general did after this months' long investigation, she says, was show a pattern of behavior, which included toxic behavior inside the workforce, the executive chamber, where there was intimidation, where there was concern over how some of these claims were being handled.

This 168-page report detailed many of the claims and the women, what they had to say about what happened to them, including a state trooper who was assigned to his security detail. She came forward. She told the attorney general how the governor inappropriately touched her, how it was nonconsensual. And the attorney general said there were other instances of similar activity and behavior indicating that the governor violated state and federal law.

So, now, the big question is what happens next. The attorney general says she's not bringing any criminal charges. She's not referring this to anyone for any kind of criminal charges. Of course, the Albany district attorney could investigate. There is a complaint. Whether or not it proceeds into a criminal investigation, we don't yet know.

But the big question now becomes what do the state assembly members do. And one person has called, what does he do? He has issued a statement and it's significant, because, ultimately, if he says for the governor to resign, that would be a significant move.

So far, he has not done that. He's only said that the governor is someone who was not fit for office in a statement that he released. But he did not call for the governor to resign.

Very significant information here, and what's going to have to happen next is whether or not the state assembly takes this on, and as we move forward, who else calls for the governor to resign.

And, of course, just to sum all this up, the governor defined here no indication right now that he intends to resign, and, of course, he is sticking up for himself denying many of these claims. CABRERA: Absolutely. He denied the claims. He said he never made inappropriate sexual advances. He says, that's not who I am. And then he went onto defend himself and try to explain some of his actions that he claims were misconstrued.

And, Erica, the governor, he repeatedly discussed the case of Charlotte Bennett, which is just 1 of 11 people who we know were interviewed as part of this investigation who had accusations against him. But remind our viewers about her allegations specifically since he chose to really home in on her case.

ERICA HILL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, Charlotte Bennett first told her story to the New York Times back in February. She then did an extensive interview with CBS News. She was very clear when she told her story. In her words, she said she felt the governor was grooming her. He talked a little bit about why he had asked her about her history.

She's a sexual assault survivor. She had said in the interview she found those questions uncomfortable. He was asking detailed questions in that taped statement that we just saw. He was saying that that was because maybe he had gone a little bit too far, but because there was experience with that in his own family, he was genuinely interested.

She made it very clear this made her feel incredibly uncomfortable. She said some of the other questions that he would ask really, again, she said she felt he was grooming her. She felt, and I'm paraphrasing, but she felt he was essentially propositioning her in some way.

When it comes to her account as 1 of the 11 complainants, what we heard today from the independent investigators, Ana, is that she and, in fact, all of them, all 11 women were credible, that they are to be believed.


In fact, I just want to quote one of the investigators here. She said there was corroboration to varying degrees, probably at the end being most corroborated, Charlotte Bennett talked to people and texted people contemporaneously, some of her texts were practically in real- time. And one of those texts which was quoted by Joon Kim, the other investigator, said, quote, the verbal abuse, intimidation and living in constant fear were all horribly toxic, dehumanizing and traumatizing. And then he came on to me. I was scared to imagine what would happen if I rejected him so I disappeared instead.

Charlotte Bennett shared her concerns over her encounters with the governor, with some of his staff. She was transferred, Ana.

CABRERA: And let me bring in our Legal Analysts as well. Laura Coates, to you, your reaction to all these events that have unfolded today, the report and then the governor's denial.

LAURA COATES, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: My jaw has been on my chest for most of the morning after hearing the bombshell reporting from the attorney general in New York, breaking it down into two different categories in terms of the physical interactions, the culture of harassment and bullying and intimidation.

And you're hard pressed to consider the fact that this is a governor's office. This is what I heard were 179 witnesses. When I heard that figure, corroboration was what came next. And it's very difficult for people to overlook the accusations, the allegations that have been corroborated time and again.

When I heard a state trooper was also involved in it, issues of credibility, I think, for a lot of people were no longer an issue if they ever were. But, ultimately, here, there was a couple moments that I thought were really striking, and that is ignorance cannot be bliss. We're not talking about 1960 or 1970, '80, '90 or even 2015. We're talking about this conduct, a lot of it taking place after it had already been signed into law by the governor of New York, which basically reduced even the threshold to prove sexual harassment, which was still a very difficult thing to prove in a court of law.

And the notion that the action that was taken or not taken by senior members of the executive chamber, if it was taken at all, it was with an eye towards protecting the governor of New York.

One of the comments that was made was the notion that even though there was this law that talked about the notion of if you were treated less well, less or not as well as others, in part on the basis of gender, then there were ramifications or repercussions. Here, the policy then changed to be that he could not be along with the junior staff member to protect the governor of New York, according to what their findings were.

I think this is truly stunning. And what I thought was surprising about his reaction to it, frankly, was the notion that he was discussing and said, I'm the same person I am in person in public as I am in private. Well, that was really the theme, if you think about the legal theme at play here, by the reporting members of this investigative team. In a sense of here is what the office and the governor has said they do on paper in terms of treating people a certain way, in terms of not having a hostile work environment, in terms of having equality of treatment in everything else. And then here is what's happening behind the scenes of over 100 witnesses.

And, in fact, the governor, as they noted, at one point, corroborated certain details of certain aspects of it, including, I think there was a lap sitting at one point, a kissing of the mouth of a senior staff member at another point. The idea of what he said today was they ascribe motives I never had, that they are trying to characterize and weaponize everyday interactions, and noted it was generational and cultural distinctions that equated this essentially trial by newspaper.

And then went on and talked about a double standard of how women are treated in the workplace if they are strong, if they stand up for themselves. Well, didn't that seem quite duplicitous? Didn't that seem like a very odd statement to have made given the fact that, number one, this was not about generational and cultural distinctions, as described in the statements and findings by the attorney general. But I'll conclude with this, Ana, and that is here we are at a point, and I think Shimon made this point so well, the idea here of about a criminal allegation, without a criminal referral either made to the Attorney General's Office in New York or referenced out to say Albany otherwise, you're talking about potentially a political result. And we know that looks like impeachment in this.

And there are some key dissensions than a federal, first, the state level impeachment, but unlike a federal impeachment, where a president can remain in office until the impeachment trial is concluded, in New York, if an impeachment is underway, the lieutenant governor, who is next in line, is the one to get the power at that point. The governor of New York would have to temporarily relinquish his power to the lieutenant governor, who then becomes the acting governor during any trial.


If that's where we're heading, that's a very key distinction when a state like New York has COVID-19 and the delta variant to grapple with.

CABRERA: Okay. Laura, you just covered a lot of ground in that answer. You hit all the questions that I want to ask, but I want to delve deeper. Because I think it's important, Elie, for our viewers. Elie Honig is also with us. It's important for our viewers to know that the governor had a chance to make his case to these independent investigators. We were told, according to New York Times reporting, that he interviewed with them for 11 hours before they issued their report today.

And what they wrote about him in their report, and how his response compared to the complainants, as they called them, and the accusers, what they were told, this is what they wrote. We found his denials to lack credibility and to be inconsistent with the weight of the evidence obtained during our investigation. We also found the governor's denials and explanations around specific allegations to be contrived.

And I want to read even more. It says, the governor's blanket denials and lack of recollection as to specific incidents stood in stark contrast to the strength, specificity and corroboration of the complainants' recollections, as well as the reports of many other individuals who offered observations and experiences of the governor's conduct.

My question to you, Elie, is did what we heard from the governor change anything in terms of your interpretation of all of this?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: No, it really didn't, Ana. This is such an important point that you draw out. When you hear the attorney general, Letitia James, when you hear those independent investigators talking about credibility and who they believe, that's not just based on whim, that's not just based on a gut instinct. That's based on a very careful prosecutorial style stacking up of all the evidence and deciding who does the evidence support and who does the evidence contradict.

And if you look at the report, it's really overwhelming. It's really devastating. It's 168 pages long. It's a question of both the quantity of the evidence. That matters. You have 11 complainants here all of whom sort of reinforce one another. All their stories are unique but the central theme is the same, but the quality of the evidence.

These investigators are not just taking these complainants at their word and saying, well, I just believe them because I believe them, they're backed up by texts, sometimes sent within moments of these things happening, by other documents, by complaints that they made. And so all of that really, to me, is an overwhelming case.

What we heard from the governor just now in that prerecorded statement was just sort of an exercise in denialism and distraction. By the end of his statement, it was sort of hard to remember, oh, yes, this is about 11 credible, supported, backed up women.

Also I think important to note, Ana, we didn't hear anything from the governor about the very well-supported allegations of retaliation against some of these women who came forward. I think that's going to be a real problem for the governor moving forward.

CABRERA: We know the investigators interviewed 179 people and they reviewed more than 70,000 pieces of evidence as part of this investigation that lasted about five months.

David Chalian, to you. The governor, we saw, showed a lot of pictures in his defense, the slideshow of him kissing and embracing people. What did you make of that?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. I mean, I think the governor showed two things pretty clearly by this entire presentation. One, he wanted to demonstrate he wasn't going to be cowed in any way by how damning the report was from Tish James and her outside investigators. He wanted to show that he was still very much committed to staying at the job that he's in.

But he also gave away how deadly serious he sees this to his political future because of how controlled his response was, the prerecorded nature, the no press questions. That all indicates to me the governor wanted to script this to the nth degree because he understands the political peril that he finds himself in.

To your point about that narrated slideshow, Laura referenced when the governor said that his opponents are trying to weaponize everyday interactions, or I don't know if he was referring to the actual claimants in the case or his political opponents, but that they were trying to weaponize what his everyday interaction is. So, he went on and showed this slideshow of all these famous political people, as well as not famous New Yorkers of every stripe, that he kisses and greets everyone warmly.

You have to step back and sort of remember that this is one of the most storied names in American politics. In the last two and a half hours has just been a bombshell nature, not just in New York State, of course, but just nationally in this moment of what -- of where Andrew Cuomo finds himself.

And I know he doesn't think this is going to be the end of his responding to this but he clearly set out to try and suggest that the report was biased, he set out to deny any inappropriate touching whatsoever.