Governor Kathy Hochul of New York, who served as lieutenant governor under her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, has entered into a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice “regarding workplace reform.” The settlement comes in the wake of Cuomo’s 2021 resignation following allegations of sexual harassment and widespread calls for his stepping down, including from such august quarters as the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as President Joe Biden.
The settlement between the DOJ and Hochul, who won a term in her own right in 2022, is geared to prevent the “Executive Chamber” from being sued under the Civil Rights Act for “engaging in an unlawful pattern or practice of discrimination based on sex and engaging in an unlawful pattern or practice of retaliation.”
This might just be a forgettable follow-up—a dustpan operation were Cuomo not considering a 2025 challenge to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who, despite decisively winning the Democratic nomination for mayor of the nation’s most populous city in 2021, is vulnerable to a primary challenge given crime, homelessness, and corruption issues dogging his administration. In a city with a population of over eight million and plenty of ambitious politicians, Cuomo might seem like an unlikely candidate for the post his father, the late three-term New York Governor Mario Cuomo, had sought. New York was blessed with a mayor, Ed Koch, who wanted to be governor, and a governor, Mario Cuomo, who wanted to be mayor. Both lost. Cuomo, the elder, wanted to live in the mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion, but he never won the office. Koch, as mayor, never lived in the mansion, preferring his rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village.
There is some precedent for a mayoral comeback from sexual disgrace. Jimmy Walker, a notorious womanizer, was returned to office in 1929 by an overwhelming majority. In 2013, former Representative Anthony Weiner was a powerful contender for the Democratic nomination for mayor despite having been forced to resign from Congress over a sex scandal in 2011 that included tweeting pictures of his crotch. Many New York politicos believe Weiner could have won the mayoralty. He channeled outer borough rage that Bill de Blasio, the eventual winner, would capitalize on, and the imbroglio had been diminished in the public mind in large part because Weiner’s glamorous wife, longtime Hillary Clinton advisor and confidante, Huma Abedin, for the moment stood by her man. Gotham seemed inclined to forgive the seemingly contrite Weiner, who had been a force in New York City politics for years as an indefatigable aide to Schumer, a city council member, and an energetic member of Congress. Alas, a new round of sex scandals during the 2013 primary forced Weiner’s withdrawal from the race. In 2017, Abedin filed for divorce, and he pleaded guilty to a count of transferring obscene material to a minor.
Cuomo seems to be banking that he can come back, unlike Weiner or his predecessor as governor and attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, who resigned from the governorship in 2008 following disclosures that he had solicited prostitutes while in office. Spitzer ran for New York City Comptroller in 2013 but lost the Democratic primary to Scott Stringer.
Neither Hochul, who barely had a relationship with Cuomo when she was his Lieutenant Governor, nor Adams, a former New York City Police Department officer as well as Brooklyn borough president, would mind terribly if the DOJ settlement dashed any hopes Cuomo may harbor for a political comeback.
Could it? I was a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office for New York’s Southern District and have had a long legal career in the city. From my reading, the Hochul-DOJ settlement proves nothing. There is no indication of any independent DOJ investigation of the facts, no suggestion of anyone interviewed, and no evidence that the Justice Department allowed Cuomo’s lawyers to make their case. DOJ neither reveals the details of its inquiry nor the basis for its findings.
Instead, the DOJ settlement piggybacks on an investigative report Cuomo commissioned led by New York’s Attorney General Letitia James. In 2021, when James made her findings, Cuomo disputed that he had inappropriate contact with 11 women. “Eleven cases!” Cuomo said. “The attorney general [James] stands up and says, ‘11 cases of sexual harassment.’ Well, that creates a whole press frenzy. You don’t even have to bother to read the report. Even if they got a few wrong, there were so many! What Democrat is going to say anything other than, ‘You have to resign?’”
Cuomo was right about Democrats freezing him out. Since then, he’s argued that he was the victim of a political hit job, only allowing that, in his description, his old-school, effusive, and tactile manner around women and men was misunderstood or deliberately derided.
At least one person has stuck by him. The secretary to the governor in his administration, arguably the second most powerful position in Albany, Melissa DeRosa, has written a book entitled What’s Left Unsaid, decrying what she claims is the political persecution of her old boss. The two appeared together on Real Time with Bill Maher last year to kick it all around, but even the generally sympathetic host expressed doubts.
Polls showing that Cuomo would trounce Adams in a Democratic mayoral primary are surely a spur to the still-ambitious scion of a famed political dynasty. Ironically, Cuomo’s brother, Chris, was partly forced from his anchor job at CNN because of the behind-the-scenes strategic advice he gave Cuomo and his staff and failing to disclose it in full. He now has a show on News Nation.
Adams’s woes, in some ways, highlight Cuomo’s accomplishments. Adams has had his share of verbal miscues—see this gem. Cuomo received national attention for his adroit daily briefings during the COVID crisis and was praised for his fiscal stewardship as governor and for getting things done. But it may not be enough. According to the DOJ settlement with the State of New York, to which Cuomo was not a party, there were 13, not 11, women. The basis for the increase from 11 to 13 is not disclosed. Other than this, the settlement agreement adds little else to the mix.
Instead, while making the pious declaration that it does not “constitute an adjudication or finding on the merits of the case,” it parrots the conclusions of the James report that:
Cuomo repeatedly subjected these female employees to unwelcome, non-consensual sexual contact, ogling; unwelcome sexual comments; gender-based nicknames; comments on their physical appearances; and/or preferential treatment based on their physical appearances.
Even before his fall, I thought Cuomo was an unattractive figure—and I was far from alone. His bullying style left him few defenders in Albany. And the mainstream media, having gone after Donald Trump on numerous sexual matters, couldn’t get enough of the story, which was tabloid fodder in itself but allowed them to show balance by snaring a Democratic scalp.
Was Cuomo the victim of a pile-on along the lines of what ended Al Franken’s senate career in 2018? In most ways, no. Franken’s behavior predated his Senate term and was said to be far less physical. There was no time for an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee before the twice-elected Minnesotan was compelled to resign. On the other hand, Cuomo also saw Democrats eager to jettison him. New York’s senators called for his resignation long before the James report was written, as did then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. When Biden, who had withheld his judgment, saw the James report, which he didn’t read, he called on Cuomo to resign.
The 165-page James report is a brutal political document, but it is not without legal vulnerabilities. Some of the complainants had sharp issues of credibility. Some of the alleged encounters were trivial, such as an attempted kiss on the cheek at a wedding with a woman who did not even work for the state.
James may not have been the most effective messenger. She was Cuomo’s political rival, poised to run for governor in 2022 once Cuomo suffered mortal wounds. James had entered the governor’s race in October 2021, two months after the release of her report, only to drop out in the face of inevitable defeat at the hands of Hochul, a former member of Congress, whom the party was rallying around. When Cuomo asked James to pick independent reviewers, she appointed Joon Kim, who took over as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District when Trump fired Preet Bharara. She also tapped employment lawyer Anne Clark. According to James, Kim and Clark were “independent legal experts who have decades of experience conducting investigations and fighting for the rule of law.”
Kim’s objectivity could be questioned, at least in the former governor’s case. When he was in the U.S. Attorney’s office, Kim directly participated in the inquiry about Cuomo’s disbanding of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, and he publicly expressed his disappointment that Cuomo was cleared of any wrongdoing. As a plaintiff’s lawyer, Clark was, it could be argued, predisposed to see a case.
Most startling, the lawyer advising the State of New York Executive Chamber about the settlement and signing the document was one Boyd Johnson, who just happens to represent New York City Mayor Adams.
As far as Cuomo’s legal status is concerned, the DOJ settlement should present little obstacle. The Hochul administration had already implemented several remedial measures and “no admission of liability.” The parties agreed that the agreement is “no adjudication or finding on the merits of the case.”
As far as Cuomo is concerned, the settlement is what lawyers call res inter alios acta, two businessmen deciding what a third should give to charity. It is old wine in new bottles.
Whether Cuomo can come back politically is another matter. Can he raise money, win votes, clear the field of other Adams rivals? Would the 66-year-old even want to? The familial and political fallout from his resignation is such that he may want to give pause. In a bizarre bit of collateral damage, Time’s Up, an advocacy group designed to end sexual harassment and discrimination in the entertainment world, imploded because of Cuomo’s resignation because some of its members quietly assisted in his defense, including Roberta Kaplan, E. Jean Carroll’s lead attorney, and Trump bête noire.
Cuomo’s comeback is ultimately a political matter left to the citizens of New York City should he seek office. Still, as a legal matter, the DOJ settlement is thin gruel and should be surmountable if Cuomo is willing once more to step into the breach.