NY AG expects to receive 'referral with subpoena power' to investigate Cuomo sexual harassment allegations

The announcement comes after James called for a "truly independent investigation" on Sunday to "thoroughly review" allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said Sunday evening that her office expects to receive a "referral with subpoena power" to investigate allegations of sexual harassment against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"The referral would be made solely to the attorney general's office," James added. "This is not a responsibility we take lightly. We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation." 

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The announcement comes after James called for a "truly independent investigation" on Sunday to "thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor."

"Allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously," she said. "I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary."

Under state law, the investigation can only be accomplished "through an official referral from the governor's office" and "must include subpoena power," James noted.

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Representatives for Cuomo's office said in a statement to FOX News on Sunday that they had already backed away from their choice to oversee the probe, clearing the way for James and the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Janet DiFiore, 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. 

Garvey noted that Cuomo's office had asked James and DiFiore 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."

"The work product will be solely controlled by that independent lawyer personally selected by the Attorney General and Chief Judge," she continued. "All members of the Governor's office will cooperate fully.  We will have no further comment until the report is issued."

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."

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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."

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Charlotte Bennett, a health policy adviser in the Democratic governor's administration until November, told The New York Times Cuomo asked her inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men.

In addition, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, recently accused Cuomo in a damning essay published on Wednesday 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. 

In a statement describing past interactions with staffers, Cuomo said: "I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm. I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends."

"At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good-natured way," the governor explained. "I do it in public and in private. You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business."

"I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended," Cuomo continued. "I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that."

However, he explicitly denied that he "touched anybody" and "never propositioned anybody," directly contradicting Boylan's claims. Cuomo's office has previously denied Boylan's harassment claims, calling them "simply false" and insisting the strip poker comment "did not happen."

"I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to," Cuomo stated. "That's why I have asked for an outside, independent review that looks at these allegations."

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"Separately, my office has heard anecdotally that some people have reached out to Ms. [Charlotte] Bennett to express displeasure about her coming forward," Cuomo added. "My message to anyone doing that is you have misjudged what matters to me and my administration and you should stop now – period."

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."

"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."

Cuomo, however, said he had authorized an outside review of Bennett's allegations.

Neither Boylan nor Bennett responded to Fox News' requests for comment. 

Fox News' Joseph Wulfson, Danielle Wallace and Bradford Betz contributed to this report