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NEW YORK — Andrew Cuomo sees a political future for himself. But when he talks, it’s all about the past.
He lashes out at prosecutors, bemoans fellow Democrats and still seethes at some of the women who accused him of inappropriate and unwanted touching and sexually charged comments. He sometimes draws parallels to Donald Trump, the former president even more consumed with perceived grievances.
Now, the exiled New York Democrat is using millions of dollars in taxpayer money in a legal fight to sow doubt about the sexual harassment allegations that led to his resignation more than two years ago.
“A rush to judgment doesn’t even do it right,” the former three-term governor said in a rare interview. “This was spontaneous combustion.”
Cuomo is going to extreme lengths to cast himself as the victim, employing what one judge called a “scorched earth” tactic to get information about an alleged college sexual assault case involving one of the women.
And just like Trump, he grouses about the prosecutors who've come for him over the years. They abused the law and weaponized the legal system, he insists. “You don’t play politics with justice,” he said.
Some women allegedly victimized by Cuomo contend they are tormented by his legal tactics and having to retell their stories, along with the cost of hiring attorneys. They and their lawyers are largely refraining from talking publicly about his strategy amid the lawsuits and subpoenas — which taxpayers are funding to the tune of $20 million because he won a case to have the state pay his legal bills.
“Cuomo’s misuse of the legal system as part of his revenge campaign has put a tremendous emotional and financial burden on his victims,” Danya Perry and Julie Gerchik, attorneys for Lindsey Boylan, one of the women who has accused Cuomo of inappropriate behavior, said in a statement.
“Not only does this retraumatize the women who were courageous enough to come forward, but it will certainly have a chilling effect on those who consider speaking up about sexual harassment and abuse in the future.”
Cuomo did not face criminal prosecution after five district attorneys investigated the various allegations of 11 women contained in a state report that led to his downfall in 2021, which included the claim he groped a former aide at the governor’s mansion in 2020.
The former governor has denied assaulting or sexually harassing anyone and says the report unfairly inflated the number of accusers. He notes that some of the women say they didn’t view the alleged episodes as harassment and says he’s never been told who one of the women is.
Cuomo’s lawyers say the current round of depositions and subpoenas is essential to defend him against an effort to use all the claims in the report to buttress the existing civil litigation.
A political future?
As he battles the claims in civil court, the 65-year-old isn't ruling out another run for public office, and he has tried to remain relevant with a weekly podcast and speeches at Black churches, where he’s warmly received.
He often continues to dress the part: a dark suit, crisp white shirt and silver cufflinks with the number 56, as the state’s 56th governor, engraved on them.
“Do I believe I could run for political office again? Yes. I think I have a lot of options, and there are a lot of issues I’m working on now that I care about,” he said. “I haven’t ruled any in; I haven’t ruled any out.”
A comeback could be complicated by Cuomo himself — by his own rumination over what led to his resignation and determination to rewrite the past, including scandals around his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic for which he initially received national acclaim that fueled talk of a presidential bid.
Cuomo’s continued ax-grinding is a mistake, according to a half dozen Democrats who have spoken with the former governor.
“There is a path, but I think he’s struggling with what goes on day to day,” former Democratic Gov. David Paterson said in an interview. “You see an article about yourself and fly into a rage.”
Paterson had lunch with Cuomo earlier this year and was struck by how his successor continued to replay the game tape of his downfall. Paterson’s advice to Cuomo? Lay low.
“He said he’s restless,” Paterson said. “He wants to do something.”
For Cuomo’s critics, the tactics in his legal fights are a reminder of how he can often resort to intimidation.
“He knows how to turn something that is harmless into a weapon, into a dangerous lie, in order to protect his own ass,” said Karen Hinton, a former aide to Cuomo in the 1990s when he was the U.S. Housing secretary who had a falling out with him. “He’s always known how to do it since I’ve known him and continues to do it. If anything, he’s better at it than he was 25 years ago when I worked for him.”
His efforts to undermine the allegations leveled against him are keeping with a darker side of his personality, she said.
“It’s old-style Andrew, and it’s come back with a fury,” Hinton added.
Cuomo still retains a segment of his political base from when he was in office: older, working class, Black voters who have made up the backbone of the state’s Democratic Party.
“The basis of my faith that I preach is redemption,” said the Rev. Al Cockfield, whose Brooklyn church Cuomo has frequented. “Whether you believe or not — believe everybody should have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given gift.”
Many voters could hunger for a muscular chief executive as the state faces mounting challenges from an influx of migrants and ongoing concerns over public safety, some Cuomo allies said. A new Siena College poll this week found most voters disapprove of Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s handling of both issues.
Cuomo quietly carries influence among a wide political circle that he cultivated over 40 years in politics, which started as a young man working with his late father, Mario, the three-term governor from 1983 through 1994. He maintains a trusty relationship, in particular, with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a fellow Democrat.
“There is a segment of the electorate that still likes Andrew Cuomo, where he’s very popular,” said Basil Smikle, who was executive director of the state Democratic committee under Cuomo. “A moderate message that he promoted while he was governor still resonates.”
A second, post-scandal life for politicians can happen.
The push that ousted Al Franken from a U.S. Senate seat led to some remorse among Democrats that they acted too quickly. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, came close to winning a race for New York City comptroller after he resigned amid a prostitution scandal in 2008.
Last year, Cuomo was close to running in a primary against Hochul, his successor and former lieutenant governor, but ultimately saw it as a losing cause as 60 percent of voters viewed him unfavorably.
Many still nurse a form of PTSD from the Cuomo years.
“Andrew Cuomo would call me up to yell at me,” said Mary Sullivan, the president of the influential labor union Civil Service Employees Association. “Kathy Hochul called me to wish me a happy Thanksgiving. That’s the difference.”
The legal saga
A former member of Cuomo’s State Police security detail is suing him for harassment and discrimination. Cuomo is using the lawsuit as a chance to fight back against other accusations he faced, seeking depositions from several women whose stories were featured in state Attorney General Tish James’ bombshell report that ultimately led to his 2021 resignation.
Looking for inconsistencies and evidence of what his lawyers view as collusion among his accusers, Cuomo asked to depose the women whose allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted touching made up the most damning details in James’ report.
Cuomo’s legal team casts the strategy as a necessary defense given the report is being used in the State Police trooper’s lawsuit to try to establish a pattern of bad behavior.
For now, most of the women are fighting to not be deposed, leading them to incur a stack of legal bills.
Additional witnesses have also given Cuomo further ammunition.
State Police Trooper James Boyle testified his former colleague who filed the suit — described in James’ report and in court with the pseudonym “Trooper 1” — was added to Cuomo’s security team in order to highlight women at the agency, despite her not meeting a three-year service requirement.
Rather than hiring the trooper for her looks, as alleged, she was added to Cuomo’s security detail to boost the number of women in the public facing job, Boyle said.
“I know I want her in a more high-profile position just because of our lack of diversity,” Boyle said, according to a partial transcript obtained by POLITICO.
James’ office rejected the claims made by Cuomo and asserted the report has withstood scrutiny.
Cuomo’s legal team led by Manhattan attorney Rita Glavin, meanwhile, is trying to subpoena records related to claims that Charlotte Bennett, the other woman suing the former governor for harassment, was sexually assaulted when she was a student at Hamilton College.
Cuomo’s lawyers contend the records are necessary because Bennett’s allegations against the former governor are among those being used to underpin the case of the trooper.
Bennett’s attorney Debra Katz declined to comment.
But Trooper 1’s attorney, Valdi Licul, in a legal filing in July, wrote: “Cuomo now seeks to punish his victims further by peering into their sex lives.” Licul declined further comment.
“That they have to bring up that trauma again is essentially re-traumatizing,” said Erica Vladimer, an advocate for victims and survivors of sexual harassment in Albany. “When you know the person who is looking for those details to discredit you, against your own lived experience, that’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Cuomo, a former state attorney general himself, will also have plenty of resources to keep fighting.
He is able to fund the deposition push because his former constituents are footing the bill: He successfully sued to have the state pick up his legal fees for the trooper lawsuit. An estimated $20 million has been spent so far aiding Cuomo and his former staff in myriad legal battles since he left office, according to the Attorney General’s office.
Cuomo’s inner circle of advisers have also taken steps toward rehabilitating their professional lives. Melissa DeRosa, his former top aide, has a memoir out this week that she claims seeks to spell out the truth of what happened, while it also extracts a level of retribution on her foes. The two are scheduled to appear together Friday on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
Cuomo has also scored some recent court victories that haven’t grabbed the same attention as his political demise.
He won a round in August against a New York ethics panel seeking to claw back $5 million he received from a book about the state’s Covid response, though an appeal is pending. He wrote the book with the help of state resources, an investigation by the state Assembly found.
A couple weeks later, a federal judge in Brooklyn dismissed parts of the trooper’s suit that accused DeRosa and Cuomo’s spokesperson Rich Azzopardi of violating New York law by retaliating against her. Both former aides hailed the ruling as the latest vindication.
But that courtroom success has not ended Cuomo’s frustrations.
Nursing his wounds
As Cuomo sees it, his resignation was the confluence of an ambitious state attorney general who launched a short-lived campaign for governor soon after he left office, progressive lawmakers who never trusted him and investigators with grudges, all of whom wanted to see him driven from office.
A weakened media, meanwhile, was too timid and failed to question what he believes are glaring faults in James’ report, Cuomo said.
“The media is less powerful against the politicians,” he said.
Cuomo has told friends that he sees parallels between the use of the legal system to go after him and the legal fusillade Trump faces — one which has only intensified as the fellow Queens native mounts a bid to win back the White House.
Cuomo stressed he wasn’t coming to Trump’s defense or declaring Trump innocent. But the ex-governor believes the widespread suspicion that the legal system is being weaponized for political purposes is corrosive and dangerous.
“I think Trump is probably guilty in all the cases, personally. It’s what it says about the justice system,” Cuomo said.
But he also frames the discussion of his downfall in ways that seem uncannily similar to Trump’s frequent claims of “election interference” — a drive to knock him out of the presidential race without defeating him at the ballot box.
“Institutionally, societally, when an election is overturned you should care about what standard we set to overturn elections,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo highlights the allusion with Trump by turning again and again to a poll taken just after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg obtained an indictment of the former president in March in connection with hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election.
The survey taken for CNN found 76 percent of Americans believed that indictment was the product, at least in part, of politics.
“That is a damning commentary,” Cuomo said. “It’s breathtaking to me. The justice system is only as good as the level of trust.”
The mere threat of impeachment by his fellow Democrats in the state Legislature was tantamount to reversing his own victory at the polls in 2018, Cuomo said.
“They overturned the results of an election — substituted their judgment for the judgment of the people,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo remains fixated on the motivations of people involved in his downfall, and often his antagonists have wound up at odds with Trump.
That includes a preoccupation with Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney whose office investigated Cuomo and ultimately convicted his close aide Joe Percoco in 2018, only to see the case partially overturned by the Supreme Court in May. Joon Kim, a former Bharara deputy, co-led the sexual harassment investigation of Cuomo.
Cuomo now acknowledges he told Trump in a January 2017 meeting that Bharara was a “bad guy.” Two months later, after being sworn in as president, Trump fired Bharara.
The former governor contends the selection of Kim to investigate him was a flagrant conflict given the bad blood between the governor and former U.S. attorney.
“It was publicly known that I believe Preet was unethical,” Cuomo said.
Bharara and Kim did not respond to messages seeking comment.
But the central target of Cuomo’s ample ire is James, who’s best known inside and outside New York for her civil suit aimed at dismantling Trump’s business empire on grounds of pervasive fraud.
James declared her investigation of Cuomo concluded that allegations of sexual harassment by the 11 women, some whom were aides, were well-founded. James declined to comment on Cuomo’s recent salvos.
Cuomo’s troubles didn’t end with the sexual harassment report.
There was the book deal, and separate state investigations found the Cuomo administration undercounted the number of Covid-related deaths tied to nursing homes in New York. He was also accused of giving preferential treatment to his family members and allies during the pandemic.
In all instances, Cuomo has denied wrongdoing.
But many lawmakers, simply put, were fed up with him. Today, few who were on the receiving end of his brand of hardball politics seem sympathetic to his complaints of unfairness.
Yet Cuomo maintains that, eventually, the circumstances of his resignation will be viewed in a new light as part of a reckoning the country is facing about the role of politics in the legal system.
“To me, it raises fundamental questions,” he said. “It’s a microcosm of where we are as a country – distrust in virtually every institution we believe are safeguards and pillars of democracy.”