It was a freewheeling conversation in a Manhattan restaurant about how to change Albany. Andrew Cuomo, then New York’s attorney general, was a lock to be elected governor in 2010 and was gaming the hurdles and opportunities.
His conclusion would prove prophetic in ways he couldn’t imagine. "The answer is to do it in two terms," he told a companion. "Third terms are always a mistake."
The irony is beyond rich, now that Cuomo is hitting major turbulence midway through his third term. Months after he was hailed as a model governor and touted as presidential timber, the sudden question is whether he will survive a federal investigation into the nursing-home disaster and accusations by two former aides that Cuomo sexually harassed them.
Power corrupts, third terms corrupt absolutely.
Calls for impeachment are growing louder over the horrific 15,000 nursing-home deaths and Cuomo’s effort to hide them from the public and the FBI. Even louder are the calls from both Democrats and Republicans for him either to resign or face an independent probe into the harassment claims.
The calls took on a new urgency after the second woman’s claim became public Saturday night.
The crises share common roots: Cuomo centralized power like no governor in modern times and came to see himself as untouchable. When the Legislature granted him emergency power early in the pandemic, he used it to fight critics as well as the virus.
The clamor against him has been slow to build largely because New York is run exclusively by Dems, most of whom would have instantly called for Cuomo’s head if he were a Republican. Their hesitancy is also owing to the governor’s reputation for taking retribution on even the mildest critics.
So the mere fact that the accusers and critics are coming forward marks a turning point that puts him in jeopardy. Fewer and fewer people are afraid of him.
Strictly speaking, Cuomo doesn’t have a political problem. His chief flaw is akin to the Achilles heel of his former friend Donald Trump. It’s his personality, stupid.
I have known and covered Cuomo for more than three decades, and sadly witnessed the dark side of his nature grow along with his power. Even in off-the-record conversations, he would often lie.
"A hundred accomplishments but not a single friend," is how one Albany insider puts it.
He was riding high at the start of his third term and then came the pandemic. He initially downplayed the possible effects, but soon pivoted into an arbitrary command-and-control approach.
Cuomo has forfeited the right to decide who investigates his conduct.
On March 25, his office quietly issued the disastrous order that forced nursing homes to accept infected COVID-19 patients being discharged from hospitals. The order, which contradicted federal guidelines calling for isolation and testing, gave nursing homes no grounds for refusing patients and barred them from asking if the patients were COVID-positive.
Despite his absurd defense, Cuomo’s actions showed he knew the order was a deadly mistake. He withdrew it in May and, as the bodies piled up, secretly changed the way his office reported fatalities.
Previously, deaths across the nation were counted against nursing homes if patients contracted the disease there, even if they died in hospitals. But New York began limiting the count to those who actually died in nursing homes.
It also stopped releasing the full data, which helped Cuomo get a book deal from a publisher and win an Emmy for his TV briefings. Both should be rescinded as fraudulent.
The con unraveled in January. In quick order, a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James concluded that the state undercounted nursing-home deaths by about 50%. And a judge ruled that Cuomo had to turn over all the data requested in a lawsuit by the Empire Center for Public Policy.
The magnitude of the coverup turned out to be breathtaking. In days, the total deaths in nursing homes and similar facilities surged from 8,700 to more than 15,000.
Cuomo’s patina of competence and credibility was shattered. It became a federal case when The Post revealed that a top aide defended hiding the death totals by saying the Governor’s Office didn’t want the Justice Department to know the truth.
Cornered, Cuomo flew into a rage and made new enemies. He allegedly threatened to "destroy" Ron Kim, an Assembly Dem from Queens, because Kim called Cuomo’s actions a coverup and potentially a crime. Kim now leads the charge for impeachment.
Then, in a flash, the bombshell allegations of sexual harassment became public. Both women claim the governor abused his power to try to seduce them.
Lindsey Boylan, who is married with a child, wrote on Medium that co-workers told her Cuomo had a "crush" on her and kept tabs on her whereabouts.
She described how he invited her to his office and showed her a cigar box he said was a gift from Bill Clinton, which she took as a reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She wrote that the governor "suggested I look up images of Lisa Shields – his rumored former girlfriend – because we could be sisters and I was the better-looking sister." She documented her claim with a relevant e-mail from a Cuomo aide.
Boylan adds: "The governor began calling me ‘Lisa’ in front of colleagues. It was degrading."
She also said he repeatedly touched her and once kissed her on the lips without permission.
Cuomo has not appeared in public since Boylan’s post, nor issued any personal denials. Aides have issued denials under their names, but they are meaningless without the governor publicly answering specific questions.
The second woman, Charlotte Bennett, 25, told The New York Times that when she was alone with the 63-year-old governor in his office, he asked about her sex life and if she ever had sex with older men. He also said he was lonely.
"I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared," the Times quoted her as saying.
She complained to Cuomo’s chief of staff, who moved her to another position, far from the governor. Bennett also gave a statement to one of Cuomo’s lawyers and subsequently resigned.
In a statement, Cuomo did not deny her specific accusations but said, "I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate." He said he asked for an outside review and that former federal Judge Barbara Jones would conduct it.
That turkey is not going to fly. Cuomo has forfeited the right to decide who investigates his conduct.
The number and gravity of the charges require a completely independent probe, one with subpoenas and sworn testimony. In fact, Attorney General James already was "mulling" a request that she appoint an independent special prosecutor because of Boylan’s charges.
The Bennett accusations leave no doubt that’s the only acceptable path forward. James should make the appointment without delay.