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One woman accusing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment is speaking out for the first time on camera. In an exclusive interview with "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell, Charlotte Bennett describes working in his office and how she believes he attempted to groom her.
GAYLE KING: One of the women accusing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment is speaking on camera for the first time. Charlotte Bennett spoke exclusively to CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor, Norah O'Donnell. She describes deeply uncomfortable conversations with the governor in which he says it became clear to her that he was trying to sleep with her.
TONY DOKOUPIL: Governor Cuomo faces an inquiry and calls to resign over this, along with allegations from two additional women and other controversies. He has apologized for the behavior that he says was unintentional, but he also says he will not step down. For more on all of this, let's bring in Norah O'Donnell from Washington. Norah, good morning to you. This is a very frank, very direct interview.
NORAH O'DONNELL: It really was. Good morning, Tony. You know, a lifelong New Yorker, Charlotte Bennett began working as an entry-level assistant to Governor Andrew Cuomo in January 2019. She called it a dream job. But when Cuomo became a celebrity for his handling of the pandemic, Bennett says the attention emboldened him, and she alleges he began sexually harassing her. Looking back on all of this, how would you describe Governor Cuomo?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: He is a textbook abuser. He lets his temper and his anger rule the office, but he was very sweet to me for a year in the hopes that maybe one day, when he came on to me, I would think we were friends, or that it was appropriate, or that it was OK.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Bennett says their professional relationship took a turn on May 15 when she alleges the governor started asking her about her love life and became fixated, repeating over and over again her history as a sexual assault survivor.
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: So he goes, you were raped. You were raped. You were raped, and abused, and assaulted.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Why do you think he was fixated on you as a survivor of sexual assault?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: I think it's really strategic. I think abusers look for vulnerabilities, previous traumas, the idea that maybe I'm more willing to accept behavior because I have a history of sexual violence. Perhaps I'm not as confident in myself because of my history.
NORAH O'DONNELL: You think he knew that?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: Yeah.
NORAH O'DONNELL: You think he was grooming you?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: Yeah.
NORAH O'DONNELL: And Bennett says on June 5th, Governor Cuomo crossed a line.
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: He wanted a girlfriend. When he said he was lonely, I mentioned that his daughters had been around. And he also rejected that, and said, yeah, I love my-- I love my daughters, but that's-- I want a girlfriend.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Bennett says, he asked whether she'd ever been with an older man. What were you thinking as he's asking you these questions?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: I thought he was trying to sleep with me. The governor's trying to sleep with me. And I'm deeply uncomfortable and I have to get out of this room as soon as possible.
NORAH O'DONNELL: And to be clear, what made you think that he was trying to sleep with you?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: Without explicitly saying it, he-- he implied to me that I was old enough for him and he was lonely.
NORAH O'DONNELL: As you left work on June 5th, what were you thinking?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: I was trying not to cry. I assumed that I could no longer work for him.
NORAH O'DONNELL: I have to get out of this job?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: I'm not doing that again. I'm not engaging in that conversation or any other conversation. I'm not putting myself in a position where he physically comes on to me. It stops here. That's it.
NORAH O'DONNELL: But then you get called back into the office the next day, Saturday, June 6th, and you've never talked about this before.
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: No.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Bennett says, at one point on that Saturday, she was the only employee working with the governor in his private office.
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: I was terrified. I was shaking. I-- I thought, any moment, something can happen, and I have no power here.
NORAH O'DONNELL: And what happens when you're with the governor?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: He asked me a few questions about how to use his iPhone, and then sends me back to wait. And then finally he calls me in and he asks if I found him a girlfriend yet.
NORAH O'DONNELL: He asked you again?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: Yes. And I say, not yet. I said, I was working on it.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Governor Cuomo said in a statement on Sunday that he was just being playful. Was it playful?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: No.
NORAH O'DONNELL: He says he was joking.
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: I wasn't laughing. And he wasn't laughing.
NORAH O'DONNELL: How do you respond to viewers who may doubt your story?
CHARLOTTE BENNETT: It's hard enough sharing the story when it's true. I can't imagine what it would be like to sit here and tell you lies. I don't know who would do that. I-- I couldn't make this up.
And also I loved my job, like, I really looked up to him. I looked up to the governor. He was my mentor. I really did see it that way.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Well, we reached out to the Governor Cuomo's office to respond to Charlotte Bennett's claims and they directed us to the governor's apology on Wednesday, where he said, he never knew, at the time, that he was making anyone uncomfortable. He asked people to wait for the results of the state attorney general's investigation. And we're going to have more news from our interview with Bennett, that's going to be tonight on the CBS Evening News.
ANTHONY MASON: Norah, this is just a devastating interview. Does Charlotte Bennett think the governor should face consequences?
NORAH O'DONNELL: You know, it's interesting. She said that she wants the governor to start telling the truth. She says if the investigation finds that he conducted himself in an inappropriate way, then he should step down.
And then in perhaps some grace, she says that he does have the ability to rehabilitate himself and do the emotional work necessary to become a better person. But we've also seen what she calls this corroborating evidence. These are text messages that she sent to friends at the time that describe her state of mind after those encounters.
ANTHONY MASON: The governor isn't just facing sexual harassment allegations. New this morning, "The Wall Street Journal" and "The New York Times" are both reporting some of Cuomo's top aides altered a July 2020 report to undercount the number of nursing home residents who died of COVID. The report that was released to the public was undercounted by thousands of deaths. Norah, why is this significant?
NORAH O'DONNELL: Well, I think it's significant because Governor Cuomo is from a storied political family. He wrote a book on leadership lessons. He was praised for his handling of the COVID crisis. Now we are learning what was happening behind the scenes. The allegations from Charlotte Bennett, the allegations in the investigation centered on what are the efforts to obscure the number of nursing home deaths. And so all of this now we're just getting a glimpse, of really as they pull back the curtain, the reporting and the investigation, what was really happening behind the scenes.
ANTHONY MASON: All right, Norah. Thank you. And as Norah said, you can see more of her interview tonight on the CBS Evening News.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Thank you, Tony.