Cuomo team backs away from sexual harassment investigation pick, allows AG to choose independent lawyer

Under mounting pressure, governor's office says it approved independent investigation

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's team on Sunday appears to be backing away from their pick to oversee an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him after state Attorney General Letitia James, the White House and others demanded the probe be conducted independently after a second former aide stepped forward.

James said in a statement to Fox News that she was calling for a referral from Cuomo to independently investigate allegations of sexual harassment. Under state law, that can only be accomplished "through an official referral from the governor's office" and "must include subpoena power," she said.

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"Allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously," James said. "There must be a truly independent investigation to thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor, and I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary."

But representatives for Cuomo's office shot back with a separate statement claiming they have already backed away from their choice to oversee the probe, clearing the way for James and the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals to select an independent lawyer to create a public report on the allegations.

"We had selected former Federal Judge Barbara Jones, with a stellar record for qualifications and integrity, but we want to avoid even the perception of a lack of independence or inference of politics," Beth Garvey, special counsel and senior adviser to the governor, said in a statement provided to Fox News. 

"Accordingly we have asked the Attorney General of New York State and the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals to jointly select an independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation to conduct a thorough review of the matter and issue a public report," she continued. "The work product will be solely controlled by that independent lawyer personally selected by the Attorney General and Chief Judge.

(Photos: AP/Getty Images)

(Photos: AP/Getty Images) (AP/Getty Images)

"All members of the Governor's office will cooperate fully.  We will have no further comment until the report is issued."

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In a shorter statement, Garvey added, "We will leave all decisions concerning the investigation to be made in the discretion of the independent counsel selected by the Attorney General and Chief Judge."

In a second email to Fox News on Sunday, James said she rejected the proposal sent by Cuomo’s office because it included the chief judge. The attorney general again called on Cuomo to make a referral with subpoena power as needed to begin an independent probe. 

"To clarify, I do not accept the governor’s proposal," James said in a follow-up statement. "The state’s Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral. While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task, per Executive Law. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted."

Earlier Sunday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. took to Twitter to call on New York's attorney general to select an investigator to look into the growing sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo.

"Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett's detailed accounts of sexual harassment by Gov. Cuomo are extremely serious and painful to read," she tweeted. "There must be an independent investigation - not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General."

Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also called for an "independent review." 

"President Biden has been consistent that he believes that every woman should be heard, should be treated with respect and with dignity. Charlotte should be treated with respect and dignity. So should Lindsey," Psaki said. "There should be an independent review looking in to these allegations, and that's certainly something he supports and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible."

On Saturday, The New York Times broke a bombshell report outlining sexual harassment claims from Charlotte Bennett, a former executive assistant and health policy adviser in the Cuomo administration who alleged that the governor "asked her questions about her sex life, whether she was monogamous in her relationships and if she had ever had sex with older men."

In a press release on Saturday, Cuomo called Bennett a "hardworking and valued member of our team during COVID" who has "every right to speak out."

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"When she came to me and opened up about being a sexual assault survivor and how it shaped her and her ongoing efforts to create an organization that empowered her voice to help other survivors, I tried to be supportive and helpful," Cuomo said in a statement, which was issued to the Times. "Ms. Bennett's initial impression was right: I was trying to be a mentor to her. I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate. The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported."

Her claims came just days after Lindsey Boylan, the former deputy secretary for economic development and a special adviser to Cuomo, published a bombshell essay Wednesday on the website Medium. She accused the governor of going "out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs," forcibly kissing her on the lips during a one-on-one briefing, and suggesting that they "play strip poker" during a plane ride.

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Cuomo's office denied Boylan's harassment claims, calling them "simply false" and insisting the strip poker comment "did not happen."

The governor's political woes were elevated in January when New York Attorney General Letitia James released a damning report accusing the Cuomo administration of underreporting COVID nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent.

Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.