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Cuomo Claims His Actions Didn't Constitute Sexual Harassment, Contrary To State Law

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a Feb. 22, 2021, press briefing.
Seth Wenig
Associated Press
N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a Feb. 22, 2021, press briefing.

Governor Andrew Cuomo fueled new controversy this week over sexual harassment allegations against him, when he sought to redefine the definition of sexual harassment in state law.

Cuomo is accused of kissing and hugging women without their permission and in one instance, groping under a female aide’s shirt. He has admitted that he also said things to female staffers, including questions about their dating habits, that might have made them uncomfortable. The governor was asked at a news conference whether he would acknowledge that those actions violate the state’s anti sexual harassment laws, a statute that the governor signed. Cuomo said he does not believe that fits the definition.

"Harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable," Cuomo said. "That is not harassment. If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that is not harassment. That is you feeling uncomfortable."

His remarks drew a response from the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group of women who say they experienced sexual harassment while working in the state Legislature. They said the governor’s defense of his actions would be “laughed out of court.”

One of the governor’s accusers, Charlotte Bennett, who accuses the governor of creating a hostile work environment and of grooming her for sex, said, in a tweet, that “the issue is about his actions, it is not about my feelings.”

Bennett’s lawyer, Debra Katz, in a statement, said Cuomo’s ignorance of the law is “truly alarming.” Katz said the law is “very clear.”

“If an employer makes unwelcome jokes, comments, asks probing questions of a sexual nature or makes unwanted sexual propositions — which is exactly what Gov. Cuomo has already admitted to having directed toward my client, Charlotte Bennett — that employer has violated New York state law. There is no gray area here,” Katz said.

Katz said according to the New York State Equal Employment Opportunity Handbook, sexual harassment is defined on page 12 as follows:

"Actions that may constitute sexual harassment based upon a hostile work environment may include, but are not limited to, words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation or physical violence which are of a sexual nature, or which are directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex. Sexual harassment also 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, or which interfere with the recipient’s job performance."

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.