ALBANY — A defensive Gov. Cuomo came up with his own definition of sexual harassment on Thursday as he sparred with reporters and again flatly denied any wrongdoing.
The scandal-scarred governor, accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by multiple women, attempted to play devil’s advocate when asked how his initial apology for making anyone uncomfortable jives with state laws that clearly say his intent is irrelevant.
“Harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable. That is not harassment,” he said during an appearance in the Bronx. “If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that is not harassment. That is you feeling uncomfortable.”
Cuomo is facing an impeachment inquiry and an independent probe into his behavior being overseen by Attorney General Letitia James after nearly a dozen women, including several current and former staffers, have publicly accused him of making inappropriate comments and unwanted advances.
In early March, as calls for his resignation grew, the governor issued a qualified apology, telling television cameras that he now understands that he “acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable.”
Pressed about his recent full-throated denials, Cuomo presented an awkward hypothetical scene, insinuating that accusations of harassment are merely he-said-she-said scenarios.
“You can leave this press conference today and say, ‘Oh, the governor harassed me,’” he said. “You can say that.
“I would say, ‘I never said anything I believed was inappropriate. I never meant to make you feel that way.’ You may hear it that way. You may interpret it that way, and I respect that. And I apologize to you, if I said something you think is offensive.”
However, the governor’s version of harassment doesn’t exactly square with the law in the Empire State.
In 2019, Cuomo signed a law lowering the legal bar for harassment in New York, eliminating the “severe or pervasive” standard previously needed for it to be legally actionable.
A pamphlet available from the attorney general’s office clearly states that sexual harassment may be “verbal, visual and/or physical” and can include sexually offensive remarks or jokes, unwanted touching or groping; or comments about a person’s gender or sexual preferences.
Former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett, the second woman to go public with her claims, says that the 63-year-old governor asked her inappropriate questions about her sex life and whether she had sex with older men.
The 25-year-old has said that she believes Cuomo was attempting to groom her for a sexual relationship.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” she told The New York Times about an incident from last June.
Cuomo’s initial apology came in the wake of Bennett’s claims.
On Thursday, the former aide replied to the governor’s attempt to redefine sexual harassment.
“When @NYGovCuomo propositioned me for sex, he broke the law,” Bennett tweeted. “It is very simple: the issue is about his actions, it is not about my feelings. He broke the law (you know, the one he signed). Apologies don’t fix that, and neither do denials.”
More than eight other women have since come forward, including a current Cuomo staffer who has accused the governor of groping her during an encounter at the Executive Mansion late last year.
Cuomo has repeatedly lamented that the public has only heard one side of the story and again repeated on Thursday that he is anxious to tell his version of events.
“People have heard one side of the story and New Yorkers are smart, they know when they’re hearing one side of the story,” he said. “And I am very eager to tell them the other side of the story because it is a much different story.
“And the truth will be told, and the truth is much, much different than what has been suggested,” he added.
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