When Lindsey Boylan accused New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment in December 2020, Cuomo and executives in his office engaged in “unlawful retaliation” against a whistleblower, the New York Attorney General’s Office determined.
“This is a sad day for New York because independent investigators have concluded that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women and, in doing so, broke the law,” declared Attorney General Letitia James. “I am grateful to all the women who came forward to tell their stories in painstaking detail, enabling investigators to get to the truth.”
“No man—no matter how powerful—can be allowed to harass women or violate our human rights laws,” James added.
The report was passed on to the New York State Assembly, which is conducting their own investigation.
A major part of the attorney general's investigation centered on Boylan, who was chief staff to Howard Zemsky, the chair of the Empire State Development (ESD) corporation. (ESD describes itself as the “umbrella organization for New York’s two principal economic development financing entities.”)
On December 13, 2020, Boylan alleged on Twitter that Cuomo sexually harassed her for years. “Many saw it, and watched. I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks[?] Or would it be both in the same conversations? This was the way for years.”
“The main focus of this team of current and former senior staff members and other trusted confidantes was not on determining the truth of Ms. Boylan’s assertions or whether there may be a pattern of inappropriate conduct by the governor that could be emerging," the report stated. Rather, the focus was "protecting the governor."
It continued, “They simply assumed the allegation false and focused on attacking and neutralizing Ms. Boylan by distributing disparaging information about Ms. Boylan to the press and conducting outreach to former staff members to determine whether there might be any other women who might share negative information about the governor.”
Senior staff within the executive chamber, who worked for Cuomo, disseminated to the press “previously confidential and privileged files that related to complaints that had been made against Ms. Boylan prior to her departure from the executive chamber.” They also “prepared a proposed op-ed, originally drafted by the governor, that contained personal and professional attacks on Ms. Boylan.”
The draft was shared with current and former executive chamber employees, including Time's Up co-founders Roberta Kaplan and Tina Tchen. Kaplan was one of the few who thought the "letter was okay with some changes" but "everyone else thought it was a bad idea." This constituted "prohibited retaliation against Ms. Boylan."
Unlawful retaliation occurs when a person makes a good faith complaint of “unlawful discrimination or harassment” and an employer takes an “adverse action” to dissuade that person from making or supporting their allegations against the employer.
Witnesses from New York State agencies, including New York state troopers, “described interactions that they perceived to be threatening and bullying to the extreme,” and witnesses who lacked “close ties” to leaders in the executive chamber "expressed concern and fear that providing any negative information” to the attorney general would “lead to harm and retribution.”
“Their trepidation arose from the way in which they observed the executive chamber respond to anyone who might do or say anything that was damaging to the governor,” according to the report. “Their fear was exacerbated by the recognition that, as governor of New York, he remained extremely powerful and that he was known to have a ‘vindictive nature.'”
One staff member told investigators the executive chamber was a “mix between ‘The West Wing’ and ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ noting that the governor’s senior staff consists of ‘big personalities’ who are ‘comfortable using power’ and who maintain a ‘culture of fear and intimidation.’"
This “culture of fear, intimidation, and retribution” fueled a workplace that normalized sexual harassment. “Most witnesses not in the governor’s inner circle provided a consistent narrative as to the office culture of the executive chamber, describing it as ‘toxic’ and full of bullying-type behavior, where unflinching loyalty to the governor and his senior staff were highly valued.”
The attorney general’s investigation confirmed that Cuomo commented on “Boylan’s attractiveness, including “comparing her appearance to that of an ex-girlfriend and on another occasion saying that she was more attractive than various actresses.”
Cuomo paid Boylan so much attention that at one point the CEO of the ESD said the governor had a “crush” on her and “asked her if she wanted him to intervene in some way.”
In 2017, “When they were on an airplane, the governor stated jokingly to Ms. Boylan, ‘let’s play strip poker,’ to which Ms. Boylan responded in a sarcastic way to deflect the comment.”
The report is filled with examples of "offensive touching" that were confirmed by investigators.
An executive assistant recalled being in the room when Cuomo’s staff tried to discredit Boylan. “They were actively trying to portray a different story of it, trying to make her seem like she was crazy and wanting to get her personnel file out. That was the first time that I had seen someone publicly come out and saying something against [Cuomo] and sexually harassing them and them going behind the scenes and trying to discredit her.”
There was an “intense focus on secrecy” in Cuomo’s office that discouraged whistleblowers from coming forward with allegations of corruption.
Alyssa McGrath, who works in the executive chamber as an assistant to the deputy director of state operations, testified that she was “instructed not to discuss anything about the governor’s interactions with anyone outside of the executive chamber, to the point that she was afraid to say anything about the governor to anyone.”
The chilling effect would not have only impacted those who survived sexual harassment or observed inappropriate behavior by Cuomo. It also protected the governor as he crafted a liability immunity provision for nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it coerced staff to remain silent as Cuomo allegedly abused state resources for his pandemic book.
“Whether driven by fear or blinded by loyalty, the senior staff of the executive chamber (and the governor’s select group of outside confidantes) looked to protect the governor and found ways not to believe or credit those who stepped forward to make or support allegations against him,” the report concluded.