EXPLAINER: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's legal woes far from over

11 August 2021 - 19:16 By Jan Wolfe
FILE PHOTO: One of Cuomo's accusers, Brittany Commisso, last week filed a complaint with police in Albany, alleging the governor groped her breast at the Executive Mansion last November.
FILE PHOTO: One of Cuomo's accusers, Brittany Commisso, last week filed a complaint with police in Albany, alleging the governor groped her breast at the Executive Mansion last November.
Image: Mary Altaffer/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Here is an overview of the civil lawsuits and criminal investigations likely to face New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for months to come as he returns to private life following his resignation on Tuesday over a sexual harassment scandal.

HAS CUOMO BEEN CHARGED WITH ANY CRIMES?

No. He is under criminal investigation.

Prosecutors in Manhattan, Nassau County, Albany County, Westchester County and Oswego County have requested evidence from an independent inquiry launched by New York Attorney General Letitia James while looking into the matter.

These local prosecutors, known as district attorneys, would be the ones to bring any criminal charges.

The report for James found he groped, kissed or made suggestive comments to women including government workers past and present - one a state trooper - and retaliated against at least one woman who accused him of sexual misconduct.

Cuomo has denied wrongdoing. He said he accepted "full responsibility" for what he characterized as ill-conceived attempts to be affectionate or humorous but said he would resign in two weeks for the good of the state.

Cuomo's lawyer Rita Glavin has said James's probe, which was civil in nature, “was conducted to support a predetermined narrative” and “left material out.”

One of Cuomo's accusers, Brittany Commisso, last week filed a complaint with police in Albany, alleging the governor groped her breast at the Executive Mansion last November.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said at a news conference that his office would conduct a thorough investigation.

WHAT CRIMES COULD PROSECUTORS BE CONSIDERING?

Apple said Commisso's complaint alleging Cuomo groped her could lead to misdemeanor charges.

The two most applicable crimes under New York law would be "forcible touching" and "sexual abuse in the third degree," said Julie Rendelman, a criminal defense attorney and former Brooklyn prosecutor.

Forcible touching, the more serious of the two misdemeanors, can lead to a maximum sentence of one year in jail, but Rendelman said a prison sentence was "very unlikely" for any defendant who had not previously been charged with a crime.

DOES CUOMO'S STATURE MAKE HIM MORE OR LESS LIKELY TO BE CHARGED?

Ross Garber, a lawyer who focuses on political investigations, said Cuomo's resignation could take some public pressure off New York prosecutors to charge him.

"Given the variety of criminal probes, the divergent issues, and various jurisdictions, it’s impossible to say with certainty" whether Cuomo will be charged, Garber said. "But resignation does take a bit of oxygen out of the wildfire that has been building for consequences for Cuomo’s actions."

ARE THERE OBSTACLES TO A CRIMINAL CASE?

In criminal cases, the prosecution must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern University law professor and former prosecutor, said Cuomo's accusers may be reluctant to put themselves through the emotional turmoil of a criminal trial if he is only charged with misdemeanors.

"It's really difficult to testify in a criminal trial," Tuerkheimer said.

Judith Olin, a University at Buffalo law professor and a former New York state prosecutor who specialised in sexual assault cases, said any prosecution could face an uphill climb given the lack of physical evidence and witnesses.

WHAT ABOUT CIVIL LAWSUITS?

A lawyer for Lindsey Boylan, a former aide who was the first woman to accuse Cuomo publicly last December, has said she plans to file a lawsuit against Cuomo. Other accusers could follow her lead, Rendelman said.

A landmark federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits sex discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, in the workplace.

Cuomo accusers who invoke this law would be suing the state of New York - their employer - rather than Cuomo directly, said Ann Juliano, a Villanova University law professor.

Under New York law, sexual harassment includes unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature - from sexual jokes to unwanted flirtation - that creates an offensive work environment, regardless of intent.

Juliano said Cuomo's accusers could rely on a landmark New York law, championed by Cuomo in 2019, that made it easier for sexual harassment victims to prove their cases in court. Alleged victims no longer have to meet the high bar of proving sexual harassment is "severe and pervasive."

To prevail in a civil lawsuit, Cuomo's accusers would only need to convince jurors that there was a greater than 50% chance that their allegations were true.

WHAT OTHER LEGAL PROBLEMS DOES CUOMO FACE?

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are investigating whether, as governor, Cuomo deliberately played down the number of deaths in nursing homes related to COVID-19.

New York health officials released a report in July denying that their policies had caused any increase in deaths.

James, the attorney general, has also been investigating whether Cuomo misused state resources to write and promote a book he published last October about his leadership during the early months of the pandemic.

Reuters


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