As the explosive findings of a sexual harassment investigation threaten to bring down Governor Andrew Cuomo, the report is also sending shockwaves rumbling toward his close circle of formal and informal advisors.
Through hundreds of hours of sworn testimony, text messages, and handwritten notes obtained through subpoenas, the exhaustive investigation details a culture in which young women were bullied and abused by Cuomo for years, then intimidated into silence by the governor’s top aides.
Beyond his cadre of high level staff — a group he dubbed the “Mean Girls” — Cuomo sought help from long-time confidantes, including allies who currently hold positions at progressive nonprofits, Facebook, and on the MTA board. Several of them are implicated in an unlawful retaliation campaign to disparage Cuomo’s first accuser, Lindsay Boylan, according to the Attorney General’s report.
On Wednesday, Boylan announced she was suing the governor and members of his inner circle for their alleged smear. Experts believe that she and other accusers may have a strong case.
“This goes beyond just enabling — they actively dissuaded and put obstacles in the way of survivors,” said Jennifer Becker, the deputy legal director and senior attorney for Legal Momentum. “They were complicit in the abuse.”
Below, a look at the role of Cuomo’s top backers in the spiraling sexual harassment scandal, and the legal and professional consequences they may face.
Melissa DeRosa, Secretary to the Governor
DeRosa, 38, earned national attention at the height of the COVID crisis as Cuomo’s shrewd and uncompromising second-in-command. As the harassment scandal gripped the administration, it was DeRosa who oversaw the shifting response, as exemplified in one email obtained by investigators: “Spin is full throated emotional apology.”
Behind the scenes, the report found, DeRosa was spearheading the effort to discredit Cuomo’s first accuser and actively discouraging further victims from coming forward. She is referenced in the report 187 times — more than anyone not named Andrew Cuomo.
In December, as aides scrambled to respond to Boylan’s claims on Twitter, DeRosa secured the former state employee’s private personnel records. She directed Rich Azzopardi, the governor’s longtime communication director, to distribute the documents to the press. Azzopardi falsely claimed they showed Boylan had been fired from the Governor’s Office.
DeRosa also sent “incessant” calls and texts to a former staffer, requesting that she surreptitiously record another aide who had expressed support for Boylan, and who would later come forward with her own allegations of abuse by Cuomo.
When Charlotte Bennett, 25, raised complaints about Cuomo’s behavior in the Executive Chamber, DeRosa’s response was to implement staffing changes “for the Governor’s protection.”
Davida Perry, an employment lawyer at Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP, said DeRosa’s efforts — particularly around Boylan — could leave her liable for “aiding and abetting” in worker discrimination under the state’s Human Rights Law.
“It would be a strong case,” Perry said. “They have a lot of facts to work with here.”
DeRosa did not respond to a request for comment.
Larry Schwartz, Chief Strategy Officer for OTG, MTA Board Member
As Cuomo’s longtime enforcer, Schwartz previously helped to hobble a public corruption commission that had begun to uncover wrongdoing in the Governor’s Office. He left the administration in 2015, but returned late last year to serve as Cuomo’s COVID-19 Vaccine Czar. The position put him in frequent contact with New York’s county executives, who at the time were clamoring for more vaccine sites.
In March, following the second allegation of sexual harassment against Cuomo, Schwartz called county executives across the state to assess their loyalty to the governor. He testified he was directed to do so by DeRosa, and that he began each conversation by noting he wasn’t calling about vaccines.
Still, one county executive described feeling “stunned” by the phone call, and the “implicit threat linking access to vaccines…with [his] position on the allegations regarding the Governor.”
In his testimony, Schwartz acknowledged an “optics issue” with the calls, while maintaining that the vaccines were distributed by a formula and not subject to political considerations.
Schwartz remains an influential member of the MTA board. At least one fellow board member has called for him to step down over the scandal. Schwartz declined to comment to Gothamist/WNYC on the record.
Judith Mogul, Former Special Counsel to the Governor; Jill DesRosiers, Chief of Staff
Eight months before Bennett publicly accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, the 25-year-old aide informed Jill DesRosiers, chief of staff to the governor, about an unsettling experience she had with her boss.
As she described how Cuomo had told her, among other things, that he was lonely, “wanted to be touched,” and was willing to sleep with women over the age of 22, DesRosiers and Judith Mogul took detailed notes.
Mogul, then special counsel to the governor, wrote that the Cuomo’s actions constituted “a blatant act of grooming.” DesRosiers agreed that the account was credible and inappropriate.
But despite newly-enacted state guidelines that would have mandated the allegations be brought to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, the women informed Bennett that a further investigation was unneeded. Mogul told Bennett that it sounded like she had a “friendship” with Cuomo, and praised her for “stopping the relationship before something inappropriate happened.”
After DeRosa was informed of the conversation, the governor’s staff implemented a new staffing protocol to avoid “situations where the Governor might be seen as being in a compromising situation with any woman.” Bennett was transferred to a new position, and ultimately left state government.
In their assessment, the investigators faulted DesRosiers and Mogul for not following the state’s reporting guidelines on sexual harassment. They also alluded to the experience of another victim, who the report found was kissed and groped by Cuomo against her will, and who feared losing her job if the story “reached the ears of the Governor’s senior staff.”
“While no one can state how, if at all, the Governor’s conduct would have changed had formal action been taken in response to Ms. Bennett’s complaint,” investigators wrote, “we note that it was about five months later that the Governor groped the breast of Executive Assistant #1.”
Mogul resigned from her position this week and did not respond to a request for comment. Attempts to reach DesRosiers through the Governor’s Office were unsuccessful.
Tina Tchen, CEO of Time’s Up; Roberta Kaplan, Founding Partner of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP and Co-Founder of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund
As Cuomo’s top aides were circulating Boylan’s personnel records, they were also scrambling to publish a letter attacking the victim personally. “The letter denied the legitimacy of Ms. Boylan’s allegations, impugned her credibility, and attacked her claims as politically motivated,” according to the report.
While nearly everyone in Cuomo’s orbit agreed the letter was “victim-shaming” and destined to backfire, it appears to have received an endorsement from an unexpected source: the leaders of Time’s Up, a prominent liberal charity aimed at helping victims of sexual abuse.
At DeRosa’s request, the group’s CEO, Tina Tchen, and the chair of its board, Roberta Kaplan, agreed to review the letter. “Both of them allegedly suggested that, without the statements about Ms. Boylan’s interactions with male colleagues, the letter was fine,” according to the report.
Kaplan is currently representing both Time’s Up and DeRosa. In a piece for the Nation this week, longtime political consultant Alexis Grennell described the dual role as “on brand for an organization of women that cozies up to patriarchy, not only failing to call for Cuomo’s resignation when Boylan and Bennett first came forward but also suggesting that he investigate himself.”
In a statement, Kaplan cited the group’s previous work with the administration to extend the statute of limitations for rape in New York as the reason for their involvement.
“We were among a group of people asked for thoughts on a public response to Ms. Boylan’s allegations when they first came out in December 2020,” Kaplan added. “While it turns out the response was never published, I made it very clear that any response should never shame an accuser. Given the revelations in the NY AG’s report, I support and agree with Time’s Up that Governor Cuomo should resign.”
The organization did not respond to follow-up inquiries from Gothamist.
Alphonso David, President of Human Rights Campaign
In a tweet on Tuesday, Alphonso David, the head of the country’s largest LBGTQ advocacy group, joined the growing calls for Cuomo’s resignation, describing the investigators’ findings as “devastating.” But as many Twitter users were quick to point out, David made no mention of his own appearance in the report.
In interviews with investigators, David admitted to providing DeRosa with confidential files about Boylan in late 2020. The files included memos about an internal conflict involving Boylan that David helped mediate in 2019 when he served as general counsel to the governor. He told investigators that it was his duty as a former lawyer for the state to provide the files, and that he did not know they would be distributed to reporters in an effort to discredit Boylan.
lol don’t worry I’m sure no one else read the full report
— ‘Weird Alex’ Pareene (@pareene) August 4, 2021
Though he left state government in 2019, emails show that David remained in close contact with Cuomo’s inner circle in the early days of the crisis. He was initially floated as a possible author of the letter attacking Boylan. After DeRosa approached him, David said he was not attaching his name to the letter, but was willing to reach out to others to see if they would sign on. According to DeRosa’s testimony, David would agree to sign “if we need him.”
At a tense staff meeting on Wednesday, employees of HRC spent over an hour berating David for his role in the scandal. “You are creating a toxic environment where partners can’t trust us,” charged one staffer. “When are you resigning?”
Neither David nor HRC responded to a request for comment.