ALBANY, N.Y. — Charlotte Bennett was new on the job as a young aide in the Executive Chamber when Gov. Andrew Cuomo had an odd request: Learn the song lyrics to “Danny Boy.”
So Bennett, perplexed, took the lyrics from the governor on that day in May 2019 and went back to her desk.
Later in the day, Cuomo asked her to sing the song. And when the now-25-year-old aide wouldn’t, with his top deputy Melissa DeRosa looking on, Cuomo started singing it himself to get Bennett to join in.
Her lawyer, Debra Katz, said Bennett recently recounted the incident for investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office.
“Instead of DeRosa saying to the governor, you need to stop this, he continued to press her to sing ‘Danny Boy,’ which is really humiliating, and when she doesn’t do it, he starts singing ‘Danny Boy’ with this booming voice and (says), ‘Sing with me, sing with me,'” Katz told the USA TODAY Network New York on Friday.
The episode is part of testimony that at least five current and former aides have shared or are expected to share with the Attorney General’s Office as the investigators it selected look into claims of sexual harassment against the Democratic governor, who is facing calls for his resignation.
The state Assembly is also undertaking its own investigation as it weighs whether to move forward with an impeachment vote.
The investigations come as Cuomo and the same legislative leaders who could decide his fate are looking to reach a budget deal for the fiscal year that starts Thursday.
Part of the negotiations were checked off late Saturday: The sides agreed on a detailed plan to legalize marijuana, a proposal that has struggled for years to get passed in Albany. The bill is expected to pass in the coming days.
Despite the swirl around Cuomo, he said a statement late Saturday: “Legalizing adult-use cannabis isn’t just about creating a new market that will provide jobs and benefit the economy — it’s also about justice for long-marginalized communities and ensuring those who’ve been unfairly penalized in the past will now get a chance to benefit.”
Testifying before investigators
Cuomo would be happy to have the focus of government on anything other than his administration’s woes.
But troubles continue to follow his beleaguered tenure.
He faces not only the sexual harassment investigations, but also one by the U.S. Department of Justice into the state’s handling of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, including the undercounting of fatalities in the homes.
The state Assembly last week also suggested its investigation would also expand to include the latest allegations that Cuomo’s family and allies were given preferred access to COVID tests early on during the pandemic when tests were scarce.
Karen Hinton, who worked for Cuomo decades ago and accused him of perpetrating an uncomfortable experience in a hotel room in 2000, contended the nursing home and sexual harassment scandals have one common theme: mistreatment of women.
“Women, not men, are largely the victims of sexual abuse and harassment. Women, not men, are more than a majority of nursing home patients. Women, not men, are the caregivers of the elderly, either employed by nursing homes or a family member at home,” she wrote Sunday on the Empire Report website.
No one is saying it’s rape:They’re saying the accusations against Andrew Cuomo matter.
He asked her questions about her personal life, such as whether age makes a difference in a relationship, citing a particular tense exchange last June when they were alone in his state Capitol office in Albany as she worked on the staff’s COVID-19 response. She left the administration in November.
Katz, her attorney, said the “Danny Boy” incident was first detailed when she spoke to investigators earlier this month, and Katz alleged it showed how Cuomo was seeking loyalty from his young female aides in a bid to groom them.
Katz was present for Bennett’s virtual interview with investigators.
Cuomo “was just testing a boundary and seeing if she would comply,” Katz said. “So she takes the lyrics and goes out to her desk. Can you imagine the governor telling you to do this? You’re 25 years old. You really want this job.”
Katz said Bennett, who grew up in Westchester County, recounted she refused to sing as DeRosa and Stephen Benton, Cuomo’s executive secretary, looked on in his Capitol offices.
“She says, No. I’m uncomfortable. I don’t want to sing. I’m embarrassed,” Katz said. “And she recounted to the investigators that DeRosa looked on with a combination of horror and amazement that he was doing it. She said, ‘You’re hazing her’ and Charlotte Bennett responded, ‘Yes. he is hazing me.”
Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser, declined to comment, telling Bloomberg News, which first reported the incident Thursday: “We will not comment on leaks by those who have chosen to take a tack so clearly at odds with the attorney general’s mission of completing a fair, thorough and unbiased review of the facts.”
Ana Liss, another former aide who accused Cuomo of a hostile work environment, has said it was important to share her experience with investigators from Attorney General Letitia James’ office.
But she is among those who have raised concerns about the Assembly probe, which is led by Democratic lawmakers with the help of a high-powered, politically connected law firm.
Liss sat for an interview with the investigators on March 18, she said in a statement.
“I answered many questions about my time in the Governor’s office from 2013 to 2015, detailing instances of unsolicited attention paid to me by the Governor and the sexually hostile work environment perpetuated by him and senior staff,” Liss said.
Cuomo has apologized, saying he is sorry if he made anyone ever feel uncomfortable and explaining he tried to be playful and joke around with his staff. But he has denied making unwanted advances or ever touching anyone inappropriately.
The Attorney General’s probe has subpoena power and appears to have cast a wide net in its probe.
“As was outlined in the statement issued by Charlotte Bennett’s attorney, this investigation is not just focused on the Governor but on the pervasive, arbitrary, and severe conduct tolerated and propagated by the Governor,” Liss said.
The Assembly estimated it could take months for its investigation to conclude, while it is unclear how long James’ work will take. Joon Kim, a former federal prosecutor, and Anne Clark, an employment discrimination attorney, are heading James’ investigation.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Attorney General’s Office has subpoenaed dozens of officials in the Cuomo administration, including DeRosa.
“No one should be surprised that the AG’s office is issuing requests for documents and interviewing witnesses, including many who work for the governor,” Paul Fishman, a lawyer representing the Cuomo administration, told the paper.
“That happens in every investigation, and it’s wildly premature to speculate what it means. Good, thorough and fair investigations take time.”
Contributing: Jon Campbell, USA TODAY Network
Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
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