In his first press briefing since three women came forward with claims of sexual harassment, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologized for acting "in a way that made people feel uncomfortable," but denied touching anyone inappropriately and said he would not resign.
New York's attorney general is conducting an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations, which were raised in the past week by two former aides and a woman who met Cuomo at a wedding. Cuomo — who is facing mounting calls to resign — reiterated that he will fully cooperate with that investigation, and asked New Yorkers to wait for the full report before forming an opinion.
"I fully support a woman's right to come forward and I think it should be encouraged in every way," Cuomo said. "I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and, frankly, I am embarrassed. And that's not easy to say."
He said that he would not resign, adding that he was elected to serve New Yorkers and that the state has "a full plate."
"We have COVID. We have recovery. We have rebuilding. We have a teetering New York City. We have a terrible financial picture. We have to do vaccines," Cuomo said. "So no, I'm going to do the job the people of the state elected me to do."
The three women have accused Cuomo of inappropriate comments and unwanted touching. Lindsey Boylan, a former economic adviser in his administration, described a nonconsensual kiss and touching from the governor amid a culture that "not only condoned but expected" sexual harassment and bullying. Former executive assistant and health policy advisor Charlotte Bennett told The New York Times that, while they were alone in his office, Cuomo had asked her a series of invasive personal questions, including whether she ever had sex with older men.
On Monday, Anna Ruch came forward with a third allegation. She said she met Cuomo during a wedding reception in September 2019, and that he put his hand on her bare lower back, and after she pointedly moved his hand away, placed his hands on her cheeks and asked if he could kiss her. A photograph of the interaction, with his hands on her face, was published in The New York Times and has circulated widely.
Cuomo said at the briefing that hundreds of such photos exist, because that gesture is his "usual and customary way of greeting" for everyone from constituents to legislators. But he also apologized for offending her, acknowledging that it was wrong even if well-intended.
"I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable," he said at one point. "I never knew at the time and I certainly never ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain. That is the last thing I would ever want to do."
Bennett's attorney, Debra Katz, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon slamming the press conference as "full of falsehoods and inaccurate information." For example, she said that Ruch's photo served as evidence contradicting the governor's repeated assertions that he had never touched anyone inappropriately. She also said that Bennett had reported his behavior immediately to the governor's chief of staff and chief counsel.
"We are confident that they made him aware of her complaint and we fully expect that the Attorney General's investigation will 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," she wrote, and called on anyone from his administration aware of any misconduct to come forward and report it.
Cuomo did not directly address the allegations about inappropriate comments to subordinates during the briefing, though he issued a statement over the weekend acknowledging that some of the things he said have been "misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation."
Asked later by a reporter whether he had personally taken the sexual harassment training New York requires employers to give to their employees, Cuomo replied, "The short answer is yes." He also noted the high number of women holding senior positions in his administration.
He urged New Yorkers to "wait for the facts" from the attorney general's investigation before coming to any conclusions. Attorney General Letitia James has said those findings will be disclosed in a public report.
"I have learned from what has been an incredibly difficult situation, for me as well as other people, and I've learned an important lesson," Cuomo said. "I'm sorry for whatever pain I caused anyone. I never intended it, and I will be the better for this experience."
When the allegations surfaced, Cuomo was already under fire over his office's handling of death toll data for nursing homes hit by COVID-19. An investigation by New York's attorney general's office found that state officials may have undercounted nursing home COVID-19 deaths by as much as 50%, though Cuomo has said the data reported was accurate albeit delayed.
The New York legislature has moved to strip Cuomo of coronavirus emergency powers, which for nearly a year have allowed him to create and suspend laws related to the pandemic without going through lawmakers.
Dan Clark of WMHT-TV told NPR's Morning Edition on Wednesday that the powers were originally going to expire at the end of March, but lawmakers had increasingly been talking about repealing them as the two sets of scandals emerged.