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One Cuomo Accuser's Experience Of Taking On The Sitting Governor Of New York

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the state of New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is fighting for his political life. Two controversies are playing out at once. One started in January when New York's attorney general said the Cuomo administration was undercounting the number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19. The other controversy began last month when a woman accused the governor of sexual harassment. Two more women have since followed. One of them is Charlotte Bennett. She's a former aide to Cuomo. Here she is speaking with Norah O'Donnell of CBS News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

CHARLOTTE BENNETT: He asked me if age difference mattered. He also explained that he was fine with anyone over 22.

NORAH O'DONNELL: And how old are you?

BENNETT: Twenty-five.

O'DONNELL: What were you thinking as he's asking you these questions?

BENNETT: I thought he was trying to sleep with me.

KELLY: Bennett's attorney is Debra Katz, and she is on the line now.

Welcome.

DEBRA KATZ: Thank you.

KELLY: If you would begin by telling us in a little more detail what exactly your client alleges happened.

KATZ: She alleges that Governor Cuomo got her in a room and made it clear that he was lonely, he was bored, he was looking for a girlfriend. He told her that he would be willing to date somebody who was in their 20s as long as they were over 22, and he established that she was 25. He then began asking her a series of highly personal questions about her prior sex life, about her sensitivities to sex as a sexual assault survivor. He made many comments that were highly invasive and highly distressing to her. And she was clear he was propositioning her for sex.

KELLY: And the timing of this - she says this was happening last year, spring and early summer when New York was the epicenter of the pandemic. Cuomo's daily briefings were big national news.

KATZ: That's correct.

KELLY: She reported these allegations, and I gather Cuomo's staff was legally required when she did so to refer the claim to the Governor's Office of Employee Relations. A formal investigation should then have kicked in. This did not happen?

KATZ: That is correct. In fact, when she detailed what the governor had done to her, they said the right things. They expressed appreciation that she came forward. They apologized that this had ever happened. But their focus was immediately toward transferring her, getting her out of this situation. And what they should have said is, thank you for coming forward; we will protect you from retaliation, and we have a mandatory duty to report this and to have this fully investigated. What they did was just the opposite.

When she expressed concerns and fears about retaliation, they essentially told her that they did not have to investigate this because she said that the governor had groomed her for sex or was trying to groom her for sex, and the legal counsel said that's not sexual harassment, and therefore we do not have to run this to ground.

KELLY: I want to note that the governor's chief counsel, Beth Garvey, put out a statement last week saying that Bennett received the transfer she requested, that she was consulted regarding the resolution and that she, quote, "expressed satisfaction and appreciation for the way in which it was handled." Are you disputing that?

KATZ: I'm disputing that they did the right thing here. Yes, she wanted a transfer, but they had a legal obligation - ironically, under executive orders signed by this governor - to fully investigate this and to ensure that appropriate remedial action was taken. It is not enough for them to say, well, she requested a transfer; she was happy with the transfer.

KELLY: Governor Cuomo says that he never acted any way that was, quote, "inappropriate." He says he was trying to be a mentor to Charlotte Bennett. And then later he said he truly and deeply apologizes for his behavior. I want to play a little bit of Charlotte Bennett reacting to that on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

BENNETT: It's not an apology. It's not an issue of my feelings. It's an issue of his actions. The fact is that he was sexually harassing me, and he has not apologized for sexually harassing me. And he can't even use my name.

KELLY: Debra Katz, to this point that he has not apologized for sexually harassing her, has he or anyone associated with him reached out to her since she came forward?

KATZ: No, he has not. And again, we see this again and again with what sexual harassers do, which is they say, I'm sorry you felt bad; I'm sorry you misinterpreted my joking behavior. This was not a joke. He sexually propositioned her. And it's not simply that the governor engages in banter and joking and she should have known the difference. He had a legal obligation not to behave in this manner, and he violated the law. It's that simple.

KELLY: He says he will not resign. Should he, in your client's view?

KATZ: What we believe is appropriate at this point is to have a full investigation into these allegations, which are quite serious, and they involve more than the governor. They involve his entire inner circle. And we believe that there is a pattern to this behavior. There are more casualties to the governor's misconduct. And we expect that if the investigation corroborates her allegations - and they're well documented - at that point, he will have had the process he says he is entitled to, and then he should resign. If these allegations are corroborated, he has no place as the governor of the state of New York.

KELLY: How's she doing? How is Charlotte?

KATZ: She's a very strong woman. I've been incredibly impressed with her that she has come forward. She is - she's scared. She's received a lot of support from friends and family and strangers, and that's excellent. But she's also starting to hear backlash. And this is tough. I just think she's a very courageous woman.

KELLY: Debra Katz, thank you.

KATZ: You're very welcome. Thanks for your interest.

KELLY: She is an attorney for Charlotte Bennett, one of three women now accusing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. We've also asked the governor for an interview. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.