Cuomo, Contrite Over Sexual Harassment Accusations, Refuses to Resign

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ALBANY, N.Y. — In his first public remarks since a sexual harassment scandal enveloped his administration, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Wednesday that he was embarrassed by his actions and apologized, but that he would not resign from office.

The governor sought to quell the outrage over his actions regarding three young women — including accusations of sexual harassment from two former aides, and another of unwanted touching and kissing at a wedding — as a growing chorus of his fellow Democrats called for him to step aside.

Mr. Cuomo, his voice appearing to crack at times, said that he wanted New Yorkers to “hear from me directly on this.”

“I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” Mr. Cuomo said during an appearance at the State Capitol. “It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and frankly, I’m embarrassed by it, and that’s not easy to say. But that’s the truth.”

Mr. Cuomo’s comments, while meant to convey contrition, may also be a play for time: He asked for people “to wait for the facts” to emerge from an investigation by the state attorney general, Letitia James. That inquiry could take several months; if Mr. Cuomo seeks a fourth term next year, potential challengers may have less time to prepare campaigns.

The governor’s calculus may also be influenced by another prominent recent case of a governor who weathered calls for him to resign: Ralph Northam of Virginia, who initially admitted in 2019 to appearing in a racist college photo, but then denied that he had. Mr. Northam, a Democrat, faced a barrage of calls to step down, including from his own party, yet continues to serve today.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo sought to differentiate his conduct from some more abhorrent behavior that has emerged in the #MeToo movement, insisting twice that he never “touched anyone inappropriately.”

“I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said. “And I certainly never meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain. That is the last thing I would ever want to do.”

It was a rare moment for a politician known for his sometimes bruising and abrasive personality, suggesting he has “learned from what has been an incredibly difficult situation for me as well as other people.”

“I will be the better for this experience,” he said.

The governor’s statements, however, were received skeptically by some, including one of the women who have accused him of improper behavior.

“The governor’s press conference was full of falsehoods and inaccurate information, and New Yorkers deserve better,” said Debra S. Katz, a prominent harassment lawyer who is representing Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide who accused Mr. Cuomo of asking her a series of sexually charged questions during a private meeting last June.

The governor did not directly address Ms. Bennett’s accusations that he asked whether she was monogamous and if she had slept with older men.

Mr. Cuomo also suggested that an exchange in 2019 with a younger woman at a wedding, where the woman, Anna Ruch, said the governor touched her bare back and planted an unwanted kiss on her cheek, was a misunderstanding.

Kissing and hugging, he said, was his “usual and customary way of greeting,” but he apologized if it had made Ms. Ruch uncomfortable, reiterating it was not his intention to do so.

Mr. Cuomo was once hailed as a hero of the pandemic and a master of New York’s hardball politics, but his political future seemed in question on Wednesday. Few, if any, top officials have vociferously defended Mr. Cuomo, and more Democrats have called for his resignation with each passing day.

He had not held a news conference in nine days, allowing the anniversary of the state’s first confirmed coronavirus case to pass on Monday without one of his trademark news briefings.

The turmoil in Albany began last week with Lindsey Boylan, who worked in the Cuomo administration from 2015 to 2018. She published an essay detailing a series of disturbing interactions with Mr. Cuomo, including an instance when she said the governor suggested they “play strip poker.” Ms. Boylan also said the governor gave her an unsolicited kiss on the lips following a one-on-one meeting with him in his Manhattan office in 2018.

“As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips,” wrote Ms. Boylan, who is running for Manhattan borough president. “I was in shock, but I kept walking.”

The governor’s office denied Ms. Boylan’s claim.

On Wednesday, Ms. Boylan, too, appeared to reject the governor’s extended apology, questioning his failure to recognize that his actions toward women were inherently inappropriate, no matter his intent.

On Saturday, Ms. Bennett told The New York Times that the 63-year-old governor told her, during a June 5 meeting, that he was lonely, and asked her whether she had ever had sex with older men and if age mattered in romantic relationships.

Shaken and upset, Ms. Bennett reported the incident to Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff, and was promptly transferred to another part of the state government.

Ms. James, a Democrat, is expected to soon hire an outside law firm to spearhead a civil investigation into sexual harassment allegations made against the governor.

The investigation could be broad enough to include potential claims that have yet to emerge. Investigators will have subpoena power to request office records, emails and text messages, as well as witnesses, including Mr. Cuomo, to testify under oath.

Ms. Bennett’s lawyer, Ms. Katz, added that she expected that the attorney general’s report would “demonstrate that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or to ensure that corrective measures were taken, in violation of their legal requirements.”

Lawmakers have privately speculated that the investigation’s outcome could increase the pressure on Mr. Cuomo to step down or influence his decision to seek re-election next year.

As state attorney general, Mr. Cuomo investigated two governors, David A. Paterson and Eliot Spitzer. In both cases, the investigations were politically devastating for the governors, helping seal their political careers.

“I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts of the attorney general report before forming an opinion,” Mr. Cuomo said on Wednesday.

Mr. Cuomo’s own condemnation of sexual harassment and misconduct has often been swift. In 2018, he called on Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, to resign hours after The New Yorker reported that four women had accused him of physically assaulting them.

In Albany, many lawmakers seemed to be taking a wait-and-see approach to Mr. Cuomo’s fate. “If the investigation shows that something inappropriate did happen, I think he would have to resign,” Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Westchester County Democrat who leads the Senate, said in an interview on CNN.

Mr. Cuomo has rarely admitted fault while in office, making his pleas for forgiveness on Wednesday even more jarring.

“If they were offended by it, then it was wrong,” Mr. Cuomo said. “If they were offended by it, I apologize. If they were hurt by it, I apologize. If they felt pain from it, I apologize. I apologize. I did not intend it. I didn’t mean it that way, but if that’s how they felt, that’s all that matters and I apologize.”

The extended apology comes as Mr. Cuomo is navigating another crisis: allegations that his administration withheld key data on coronavirus-related nursing home deaths to cover up the full extent of the death toll in such facilities.

Last month, during a private meeting with state lawmakers, the governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, suggested that the administration had withheld the data out of fear it would be used against the governor by the Trump Justice Department at the time.

The disclosure led federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. to open an inquiry into the matter.

There were some potential signs of fatigue in Mr. Cuomo’s inner circle: Just before Mr. Cuomo spoke on Wednesday, Gareth Rhodes, a top coronavirus adviser, announced that he would leave the governor’s task force confronting the disease.

Mr. Rhodes, whose 2019 wedding in Manhattan was where Mr. Cuomo kissed Ms. Ruch, said his decision was made last week.

Politico also reported that a press aide, Will Burns, informed the governor’s office on Tuesday that he would leave the executive chamber.

On Wednesday, Ms. Katz noted the departures, and repeated Ms. Bennett’s previous call for others who may have experienced or witnessed harassment by the governor to speak out.

“If they know anything or have experienced this themselves,” Ms. Katz said, “we call on them to come forward and report this misconduct.”

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