All the governor’s men — and women

Gov. Andrew Cuomo for years has shrugged off accusations that he oversees an office that runs on fear, threats, insularity and above all, fealty to Cuomo himself. Tough tactics were necessary, Cuomo and his allies said, to get things done in New York.

But the damaging report released this week by the state Attorney General’s office unequivocally said it was that culture — and the people who presided over it — that allowed gender-based harassment and inappropriate conduct to continue unchecked for years.The report said a cult of loyalty in the governor’s office helped to create “an environment” that allowed harassment “to flourish.”

“The common thread among all of these individuals was a proven, personal loyalty to the Governor,” the report states. “[L]oyalty and personal ties were valued as much, if not more, than any official function or role in State government.”

The report and its exhibits offer a rare look into the insular and secretive world of the state Capitol’s second floor, home to the regal governor’s office. It paints a picture of a staff determined to protect Cuomo at all costs when former economic development aide Lindsay Boylan made the first accusation of harassment late last year. Members of the governor’s team went to extraordinary lengths to impugn Boylan — including drafting several trusted outside hands and tactics that some staff members fretted crossed the line — and identify people sympathetic to her also working under the governor’s employ.

The all-hands effort only intensified months later when Boylan raised additional allegations, setting in motion a series of events that culminated in Tuesday’s report and put Cuomo’s political life teetering on a cliff’s edge.

The governor’s office declined to comment for this story. An outside attorney for the governor’s office on Thursday released a memo in response to James’ report arguing the administration’s actions toward Boylan did not constitute illegal retaliation.

The names of many of these key advisers mentioned in the report are familiar to Cuomo observers, especially as many of them also played integral roles in the administration’s response to Covid-19, but the report shines a light on the behind-the-scenes machinations of a cohort accustomed to secrecy.

These are the people in Cuomo’s orbit, and the roles they have played:

Senior Executive Chamber staff

As secretary to the governor, Melissa DeRosa is Cuomo’s top aide and the most powerful unelected official in state government. She is also the daughter of a chief Albany lobbyist for the influential Bolton St. Johns firm. She played a key role in developing Cuomo’s defense, but was one of the few people to have standing to confront the governor about his actions.

A major portion of the report focuses on how Cuomo’s most-trusted advisers, DeRosa chief among them, scrambled to respond to Boylan’s accusations against the governor — first in December, and again in the spring — before other allegations of harassment and bullying came out publicly.

When a former executive chamber employee, identified in the report by her first name Kaitlin, received an unexpected call from a former staff member that was surreptitiously recorded, it was done “at the insistence of Ms. DeRosa,” according to the report.

DeRosa wanted to assess whether Kaitlin was working in concert with Boylan after Boylan had gone public with allegations against the governor. DeRosa even gave the former staffer instructions about things she wanted discussed during the conversation, investigators found. The former staffer indicated regret for agreeing to the ploy.

DeRosa testified that she was instructed by Cuomo to devise a letter responding to Boylan attacking her credibility and motivations. She claimed to have reservations about the tactic; the letter was never published, though DeRosa relayed portions of its contents to a reporter.

Cuomo has repeatedly shielded the behavior or DeRosa and other high-level female aides and argued Tuesday that criticism of them is rooted in sexism and “smacks to me of a double standard.”

DeRosa also had a pair of noteworthy conference calls with members of the Albany Times Union that were documented in the report. In one, DeRosa repeatedly pushed to send Boylan’s personnel file even though the journalists tried to rebuff her.

In the other that occurred months earlier, DeRosa became incensed that the paper was inquiring about the circumstances surrounding the hiring of a female state trooper to the governor’s protective detail, saying “you guys are trying to reduce her hiring to being about looks. That’s what men do.”

But Tuesday’s report found the trooper had in fact been brought on despite not meeting the minimum service requirement and determined she was later harassed repeatedly by the governor.

DeRosa and chief of staff Jill DesRosiers both said Cuomo would refer to them and other top staffers as “mean girls.” The governor denied using the term, but both said they despised the phrase.

The report did show a clash the public has rarely seen between DeRosa and Cuomo in which she said she confronted him while traveling in a car after learning about accuser Charlotte Bennett’s complaints. She testified telling him, “I can’t believe you put yourself in a situation where you would be having any version of this conversation” and said she got out of the car when it stopped for a red light.

Frequently mentioned alongside DeRosa was Stephanie Benton, the governor’s office director, who featured prominently in the accounts given by many of the victims listed in the report. Benton often commented on female aides’ appearances in relation to the governor’s personal tastes in women, they said. She and DeRosa were present in her office, where Cuomo called in Bennett to sing “Danny Boy,” for him a performance DeRosa remarked was equivalent to “hazing.” Benton also supervised who spent time privately with Cuomo, leaving the accusers with little confidence she would support their complaints.

“I was just terrified that if I shared what was going on that it would somehow get around,” an unnamed executive assistant told investigators. “And if Stephanie Benton or Melissa [DeRosa] heard that, I was going to lose my job. Because I knew that I certainly was going to be the one to go.”

Benton testified that she sat on the governor’s lap during an event for certain members of the Executive Chamber and heads of state agencies, but that she did not feel uncomfortable in the situation.

The report said it was Benton, not Cuomo, who signed the governor’s name to the form attesting to completing a mandatory sexual harassment training in 2019 though both testified that he did review the material.

Annabel Walsh, the governor’s former scheduler who had left the chamber in October, according to payroll records, raised concerns about the initial scheme to challenge Boylan’s credibility with a public letter, saying “the entire thing is castigating” an alleged victim. She suggested recasting it to be from the perspective of employees who had positive experiences working for the governor, using a letter circulated by prominent women in the media supporting NBC News veteran Tom Brokaw as an example.

“I know you know all of this and i love you and it’s going to be okay,” she wrote to DeRosa.

  1. don’t do this (but i get it)
  2. let this story die
  3. why give her this insanely amazing platform…
  4. do the tom brokaw letter if you have to do anythign [sic]”

Walsh, like Benton, said she had inoffensive physical interactions with the governor and testified that the governor had kissed her on the lips, though she was not made uncomfortable by the gesture.

Department of Financial Services Superintendent Linda Lacewell is a top government official whose name regularly appeared in the report as one who exceeded her official duties in Cuomo’s defense. An attorney who has been with Cuomo since his days as attorney general, she has since held titles that included chief of staff and chief risk officer — and was informally dubbed by some as the administration’s “minister of defense.”

One of the victims testified that Lacewell was among those seen cycling into DeRosa’s office as the governor’s inner circle hashed out ways to counter Boylan’s accusations.

After the team decided not to publish a letter attacking Boylan’s credibility, Lacewell co-wrote a statement attesting to the governor’s integrity and treatment of women in his office to be signed by other current and former employees.

She also worked along with DeRosa and Benson to drum up support for that letter to get at least 50 signatures, an effort that fizzled and was never released. Spokespersons for DFS did not respond to a request to comment on Lacwell’s role and continued prominence in the executive chamber operations.

Communications team

Several members of the governor’s communication staff, both past and present, played considerable roles in how the optics-minded Cuomo administration responded to the allegations of sexual harassment. But notable was how heavily the messaging and outreach relied on trusted former advisers rather than other current administration employees to fill in the ranks.

Chief among the press team was senior adviser Rich Azzopardi. The report states that Azzopardi, spokesperson for the governor, circulated Lindsey Boylan’s personnel documents to several journalists, as well as Cuomo associates who were not part of the administration at the time.

But his role went beyond just disseminating Boylan’s file to those outside the Executive Chamber. The report states Azzopardi “hunted for Wite-Out to redact the names of other employees” who were named in the Boylan documents before it leaked to reporters and others.

Azzopardi was the most prominent public voice, but then-communications director Peter Ajemian was often in the mix, including as one of the people on a March 13 call between DeRosa and members of the Albany Times Union, a recording of which was included with the report.

Ajemian was in contact with the New York Times as the paper prepared to publish Anna Ruch’s account of an unwanted advance by the governor at a 2019 wedding, and Ajemian discussed how to handle the matter with DeRosa, Smith, Lacewell and others. Rita Glavin, Cuomo’s attorney, cited the presence of Ajemian and other aides at the governor’s mansion on the day a staffer alleged that Cuomo groped her there as evidence the incident did not occur.

Abbey Collins, who worked as a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and governor’s office prior to leaving for a communications job at Goldman Sachs in recent months, was among those who emphatically denied Boylan’s account of the governor suggesting they play strip poker on a plane ride in fall 2017. The official statement was issued in the name of Caitlin Girouard, who left the governor’s office for PayPal in March.

Cuomo administration alumni

Howard Zemsky is the former head of New York’s economic development arm, Empire State Development. Zemky’s name was among those put out by the governor’s office to refute Boylan’s accusation of harassment onboard the state plane with the governor, including the comment about playing strip poker.

He later told investigators the governor had in fact made that reference on the flight. Zemsky, a long-standing Cuomo ally, also testified that Cuomo’s behavior toward Boylan — who was Zemsky’s chief of staff at one point — was inappropriate and that he offered to intervene on her behalf.

Alphonso David served as the top lawyer in the governor’s office prior to becoming president of the Human Rights Campaign in 2019. He was informally pulled back into the circle in December, as Cuomo’s top aides and allies looked into ways to counter Boylan’s initial allegations of harassment on Twitter.

While the governor’s counsel, David handled the complaints that formed the basis of the documents later leaked to undermine Boylan. David had also retained a copy of the files after leaving the Executive Chamber and later sent them to Azzopardi.

Additionally David — along with DeRosa, Lacewell and former secretary to the governor Steve Cohen — participated in discussions surrounding the taped phone call involving Kaitlin, who is among the women the report indicated Cuomo harassed.

David did not agree to sign onto a statement in support of the governor, apologizing in a group message that he was advised against the idea by HRC staff. But he offered to help in other ways. Ultimately he also made calls to drum up support for the unsent letter attesting to the governor’s positive treatment of women in his office.

On Tuesday he distanced himself from Cuomo after the release of the sexual harassment report.

“After reading the AG’s devastating report that concluded Gov. Cuomo engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment, in violation of both federal and state law, he should resign,” David wrote in a tweet.

HRC did not respond to requests to comment on David’s involvement while leading the organization. David told HRC employees in a meeting Wednesday he was not planning to resign but is “looking at the issue to make sure the brand is not in any way affected,” according to a recording of the conversation reported on this week by the Washington Post and HuffPost.

The attorney general’s report also confirmed that longtime Cuomo associate Larry Schwartz was directed by DeRosa in March to contact Democratic county executives to suss out whether they would call on the governor to resign in light of the sexual harassment allegations that had come out. At the time Schwartz was heading New York’s vaccine distribution effort, and his twin role unnerved people on the receiving end of his inquiries, according to investigators and contemporary media reports.

Josh Vlasto and Rich Bamberger are former members of the governor’s communications team who went on to work for the political firm Kivvit. The pair frequently conferred with current members of Cuomo’s press team and other trusted advisers about messaging and strategic decisions during the controversy.

Though Vlasto in the past had been a willing attack dog for Cuomo — and was one of the people who Azzopardi sent Boylan’s files to in December — at times he expressed reluctance to embrace the tactics being deployed by other Cuomo defenders. The most vivid example followed a conversation he had with Cohen regarding the administration’s campaign to paint the attorney general’s investigation as political.

“Steve told me this morning they are asking him to spread oppo on Joon Kim,” Vlasto wrote on March 16, referring to one of the attorneys James brought in to lead the investigation into Cuomo. “Don’t think we want to be getting down with that crowd.”

Cohen was one of the only people who thought the anti-Boylan letter was workable after other advisers balked, DeRosa testified telling the governor.

Vlasto also testified that he declined Cuomo’s request to take charge of the “politics and press operation” responding to the simultaneous investigations into the governor because he disagreed with the team’s tone, which he felt was overly negative.

Vlasto’s name also appeared on chat messages commenting that damning reports about the governor’s office culture actually understated the situation.

“The odd part about these workplace stories” read a message dated March 12. “It’s not even close to what it was really like to work there day to day.”

(A subsequent message noted, however, “it never really bothered me. It was part of the deal.”)

Dani Lever left the governor’s office in August 2020 to work as a communications manager at Facebook, but was brought back into the fold as Boylan’s allegations surfaced. Along with Bamberger, Lever “coordinated” the release of Boylan’s files to reporters with the blessing of the governor’s office, according to the report.

Lever was one of the people who saw drafts of an op-ed hatched by Cuomo and close advisers but refused to sign her name to it because she viewed it as “victim blaming.”

Lever joined the February statement denying Boylan’s strip poker allegation, along with Zemsky, Collins and John Maggiore, a senior aide who in June was confirmed to the Public Service Commission.

Facebook declined a request to comment.

Outside advisers

Lis Smith is a veteran Democratic political operative who has had leading strategic roles on Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign and Cuomo’s 2018 re-election campaign, among others. She is also close with DeRosa and other members of Cuomo’s inner circle. Smith was active in strategizing the governor’s messaging amid the firestorm that erupted surrounding the allegations of sexual harassment.

At one point Smith provided blunt real-time feedback to a group of advisers regarding the tone of the governor’s March 3 press conference during which he apologized for making women feel uncomfortable while denying allegations of inappropriate contact.

“Tone is not contrite,” she messaged.

Smith also urged the governor’s press team to forcefully challenge the severity of Ruch’s allegations.

“This doesn’t pass the smell test,” Smith wrote in an email. “This is not harassment-”

Global Strategy Group’s Jefrey Pollock, a pollster to Cuomo and other high-profile Democrats, also served as a sounding board as the governor’s team hashed out the administration’s response to key developments.

Like Smith, Pollock also tried to steer the tone of Cuomo’s March 3 press conference while it was ongoing.

“And now he is not sounding contrite so let’s get back to that,” he messaged almost seconds apart from Smith.

Star CNN anchor Chris Cuomo is the governor’s younger brother and participated in strategy calls with other members of the governor’s braintrust and was included on Feb. 28 email chain discussing a statement issued later that day in the governor’s name responding to some of the early allegations made against him.

Documents included as part of the AG’s report appeared to show Chris Cuomo had an active role in the statement’s wording but it was not clear whether he helped write it. Others listed on the chain included Ajemian, Azzopardi, Cohen, DeRosa, Lacewell, Lever Pollock, Smith and Vlasto.

“Chris wants to make sure we have enough contrition in here,” Smith wrote in a Feb. 27 message to members of the group.

“I don’t love that part but Chris/Andrew wanted in,” Smith wrote in another message hours apart.

The younger Cuomo’s assistance to his embattled brother, first reported by the Washington Post in May, blurred ethical boundaries for a journalist and have opened both Chris Cuomo and network leaders to criticism. CNN called Cuomo’s involvement in his older brother’s affairs “inappropriate,” but opted not to sanction him.

During the critical December period after Boylan went public, the governor specifically requested input from attorney Roberta Kaplan, who helped co-found the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, while his team was mulling the eventually scuttled op-ed directed at the Boylan allegations.

The report said Kaplan discussed the contents of the draft with Time’s Up President Tina Tchen, a former top Obama aide, and the pair agreed that, with some changes, the letter would be fine, citing testimony DeRosa gave investigators.

Tchen, in a comment on Wednesday after the report was published, said she “would never, nor have I ever, worked to discredit a survivor in any way.”

“I’m furious that the Governor’s office used me and TIME’S UP as a justification for their defense. TIME’S UP is an organization that has always centered survivors while holding those committing harm accountable. Any characterization of us to the contrary is simply not true.”

Kaplan became further enmeshed after DeRosa hired the attorney to represent her during the state attorney general’s investigation.

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