New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday pushed back against allegations that he sexually harassed a staffer by suggesting harassment is in the ear of listener and the intentions of the alleged harasser.
“Harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable — that is not harassment. If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that is not harassment. That’s you feeling uncomfortable,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo has been hit with over a half-dozen sexual harassment allegations from different women, including staffers, since March. The governor has denied touching anyone inappropriately, but acknowledged that he may have acted in ways that made people feel uncomfortable. He initially said that was unintentional and apologized, but has more recently said he'd done nothing wrong.
Cuomo has said repeatedly he will not resign, despite calls for him to step down from the bulk of New York's congressional delegation and dozens of state legislators.
The governor made the "uncomfortable" remarks after a reporter at a press conference pressed him on whether he'd acknowledge the motivation behind his alleged harassing comments were irrelevant.
The reporter, Rebecca Lewis of the website City & State New York, had pointed to Cuomo's earlier statement noting that he may have made remarks to a staffer named Charlotte Bennett that could be considered "insensitive or too personal."
"I said I never meant to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I never said anything I believe is inappropriate," he said.
"You can leave this press conference today and say the governor harassed me. You can say that. I would say I never said anything I believed to be inappropriate. I never meant to make you feel that way. You may hear it that way and interpret that way, and I respect that and I apologize to you if I said something you think is offensive," he said, before continuing on and saying, "harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable."
Bennett's lawyer, Debra Katz, called Cuomo's remarks "jaw dropping."
"For someone who signed the law defining sexual harassment in New York State, and who claims to have taken the state’s mandated sexual harassment training every year despite Ms. Bennett seeing someone else take it on his behalf, Gov. Cuomo continues to show an alarming degree of ignorance about what constitutes sexual harassment," Katz said in a statement.
She pointed to the New York State Equal Employment Opportunity Handbook, which says sexual harassment "consists of any unwanted verbal or physical advances, sexually explicit derogatory statements or sexually discriminatory remarks made by someone which are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, which cause the recipient discomfort or humiliation."
Bennett tweeted after the remarks that it "is very simple: the issue is about his actions, it is not about my feelings. He broke the law (you know, the one he signed). Apologies don’t fix that, and neither do denials."
Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to Cuomo — who was the first woman to publicly accuse him of misconduct — said the governor "is using the power of his office to abuse and to validate abuse."
“The single most powerful man in New York is trying to play devil’s advocate for himself, contradicting a bill that he himself signed into law,” said Boylan, who's now running for Manhattan borough president.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating numerous sexual harassment and misconduct allegations against Cuomo, including Bennett's.
Cuomo said Thursday he's looking forward to talking to James' investigators.
"I am very eager to tell them the other side of the story, because it is a much different story and the truth will be told and the truth is much, much different than what has been suggested," he said. "And I'll leave it at that for now."
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