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By Jonathan Allen and Nathan Layne
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An investigation into accusations of sexual harassment by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo found that he groped, kissed or made suggestive comments to 11 women and created a "toxic" workplace in violation of the law, the state attorney general said on Tuesday, with the White House calling the allegations abhorrent.
In a recorded statement issued after Attorney General Letitia James unveiled the findings of the five-month independent inquiry, Cuomo denied that he had acted inappropriately and made clear he had no plans to resign. The civil investigation will not directly lead to criminal charges against Cuomo.
Cuomo, a third-term Democratic governor who has served in the post since 2011, called the findings inaccurate and unfair and said his words, gestures and demeanor were misinterpreted and were always intended to convey warmth to the women.
The findings of the inquiry, detailed in a scathing 168-page report, could deal a devastating blow to Cuomo - once seen as a possible presidential candidate - and hinder his administration.
"What this investigation revealed was a disturbing pattern of conduct by the governor of the great state of New York," said James, a Democrat. "These 11 women were in a hostile and toxic work environment."
President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat who has previously said Cuomo should resign if the allegations were shown by an investigation to be true, plans to give his reaction later in the day, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
"I don't know that anyone could have watched this morning (James' briefing) and not found the allegations to be abhorrent. I know I certainly did," Psaki said.
The report's findings prompted some U.S. lawmakers and senior New York Democrats to demand Cuomo's resignation, underscoring the swift fall for a governor who had became nationally popular last year in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic by presenting himself as an authoritative figure in daily televised news conferences.
The report said one of the women Cuomo targeted was a state trooper. Anne Clark, who helped run the inquiry, said Cuomo stood behind the trooper in an elevator and "ran his finger from her neck down her spine and said, 'Hey you.'" Cuomo also ran an "open hand from her belly button to her hip where she carries her gun," Clark added. The trooper, according to Clark, said Cuomo inappropriately touched her from "her chest to her privates."
Cuomo, a divorced father of three adult daughters, said he is sorry if his behavior was misunderstood by his accusers, but denied wrongdoing. He said he would "not be distracted" from his work battling the COVID-19 pandemic, a sign he has no intention of resigning.
"I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances," Cuomo said. "I am 63 years old. I've lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am. And that's not who I have ever been."
"The facts are much different than what has been portrayed," Cuomo added.
Carl Heastie, who as speaker of the Democratic-controlled New York Assembly has authorized an impeachment investigation into Cuomo's conduct, called the report's findings "disturbing" and said they pointed to "someone who is not fit for office."
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate majority leader, said Cuomo should "resign for the good of the state."
Investigators spoke to 179 people, James said. She said the probe revealed a "climate of fear" in which Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, many of them young, and showed that his office retaliated against a former employee who accused him of wrongdoing.
'RIFE WITH BULLYING'
James named two veteran outside attorneys to run the investigation: Joon Kim, a former federal prosecutor and acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, and Clark, an employment lawyer with experience in sexual harassment cases.
Kim said Cuomo's workplace was "rife with bullying, fear and intimidation" and one in which crossing him or his senior staff meant you would be "written off, cast aside or worse."
The report rejected Cuomo's suggestions that his conduct was an innocent reflection of an affectionate Italian-American culture in which he was raised. Investigators found little credibility in his "blanket denials and lack of recollection as to specific incidents."
"What these witnesses - and many others - described is not just old-fashioned, affectionate behavior - it was sexual harassment," the report concluded.
Rita Glavin, a lawyer defending Cuomo against the sexual harassment complaints, released a lengthy "position statement" responding to the report, which she said "purposefully omits key evidence." Glavin accused James of bias.
The statement included pages of photographs of Cuomo embracing or kissing prominent political figures including Biden, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore. It also included multiple photographs of Cuomo kissing his late father, who also served as governor.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; editing by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)