Cuomo apologizes for 'insensitive' comments, turns over sexual harassment investigation to AG's office

Faced with multiple allegations of sexual harassment, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday apologized for comments that "have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation" and, following pressure from fellow Democrats, agreed to refer the matter to the state attorney general's office.

"At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny," he said, adding, "I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business."

"I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended," he continued. "I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that."

The statement comes after former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett, 25, told The New York Times that Cuomo made several inappropriate remarks about her sex life, which she said she interpreted as an overture. Cuomo denied the allegations, which NBC News hasn't independently reported, by saying he "never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate."

Bennett's allegation is the second a former aide has levied against Cuomo since December. Last week, Lindsey Boylan, a deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to Cuomo from 2015 to 2018, expanded on a December tweet saying Cuomo "sexually harassed me for years." In an essay posted Wednesday on Medium, Boylan detailed her experience, which she said included an unwanted kiss from Cuomo.

In a statement to NBC New York, Cuomo spokesperson Caitlin Girouard said, "There is simply no truth to these claims."

On Sunday, Cuomo said: "To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to."

"That's why I have asked for an outside, independent review that looks at these allegations," he said. "Separately, my office has heard anecdotally that some people have reached out to Ms. Bennett to express displeasure about her coming forward. My message to anyone doing that is you have misjudged what matters to me and my administration and you should stop now – period."

The statement came amid a back-and-forth Sunday between the governor's office and New York Attorney General Letitia James over the parameters of an investigation into the matter. His office on Saturday appointed a former federal judge to review the allegations, but top Democrats, including James, said Cuomo hadn't gone far enough to ensure the independence of the inquiry into the claims

The governor's office changed course Sunday morning, announcing that it was asking the state's attorney general and its chief judge to appoint an independent investigator to examine allegations of sexual harassment against him. But James said later Sunday that she didn't accept the proposal, as it wouldn't give her office full authority over the process.

"While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task," she said in a statement. "The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted." Janet DiFiore is chief judge of the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

Earlier Sunday, James had asked Cuomo's office to formally refer the matter to her office.

"Allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously," she said. "There must be a truly independent investigation to thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor, and I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary."

Just prior to the release of Cuomo's statement Sunday, Garvey suggested the powers James referenced would be provided to the private lawyer she selected to lead the inquiry, adding that, "as necessary, other lawyers from the appointed lawyer's firm shall be similarly designated to assist in the review."

Within the past 24 hours, a number of prominent Democrats had called for such an independent investigation following the allegations by former aides while saying the initial investigation announced by the governor's office did not have the appearance of true independence.

"No, I wouldn't consider that to be independent," Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "It should be, I would say, the attorney general of New York."

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement, "Sen. Schumer has long believed sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated, and that allegations should be thoroughly and independently investigated."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on Sunday also called for "an independent, transparent and swift investigation into these serious and deeply concerning allegations." She later clarified that James' office should solely handle the review.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, tweeted Sunday: "Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett's detailed accounts of sexual harassment by Gov. Cuomo are extremely serious and painful to read. There must be an independent investigation — not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General."

Speaking Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden believes Bennett and Boylan "should be treated with respect and dignity."

"There should be an independent review of these allegations," she said. "They're serious. It was hard to read that story as a woman. And that process should move forward as quickly as possible, and that's something we all support and the president supports."

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