Who Ordered a Smear Campaign Against Andrew Cuomo’s First Accuser?

In early December, Lindsey Boylan responded to a prompt on Twitter for people to share the worst job they’d ever had. “Most toxic team environment?” she tweeted. “Working for @NYGovCuomo.” At the time, much of the public still thought of Governor Andrew Cuomo as one of the heroes of America’s pandemic response. President-elect Joe Biden was reportedly considering him for Attorney General. Boylan had worked in the Cuomo administration for more than three years; her final title had been deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the Governor. On December 11th, as reports about Cuomo’s possible appointment continued to appear, Boylan tweeted about him again. “@JoeBiden if you make this man Attorney General, some women like me will be bringing the receipts,” she wrote. “We do not need a sexual harasser and abuser as ‘the law,’ of the land.”

After leaving the Cuomo administration, in 2018, Boylan, who is thirty-six, ran unsuccessfully for Congress; she is now a candidate for Manhattan borough president. She maintains an active Twitter account, with tens of thousands of followers. But her December 11th tweet received little attention. On December 13th, Boylan made her accusation more explicit. “Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years,” she tweeted. “Many saw it, and watched. I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks. Or would it be both in the same conversation? This was the way for years.” That got attention. Boylan’s phone began buzzing with calls from reporters. She turned them away. “To be clear: I have no interest in talking to journalists,” she tweeted, shortly after. “I am about validating the experience of countless women and making sure abuse stops.”

Boylan’s allegation then all but disappeared from the news for two months, until late February, when she published an essay on Medium detailing several menacing and demeaning interactions that she said she’d had with the Governor and his staff. Boylan wrote, for instance, that the Governor, through an aide, “suggested I look up images of Lisa Shields—his rumored former girlfriend—because ‘we could be sisters’ and I was ‘the better looking sister.’ The Governor began calling me ‘Lisa’ in front of colleagues. It was degrading.” Soon after Boylan published her essay, another former Cuomo aide, Charlotte Bennett, sat for interviews about her own troubling experiences with him. Among other things, Bennett, who is twenty-five, said that the Governor had repeatedly brought up her romantic life, and once asked if she “had ever been with an older man.” Next, Anna Ruch came forward with an account—and a photograph—of Cuomo grabbing her face at a wedding reception. And Ana Liss, who served as an aide to Cuomo from 2013 to 2015, told the Wall Street Journal that the Governor inquired about her dating life and would make comments about her physical appearance. On March 1st, as calls for Cuomo’s resignation mounted, the Governor asked the state attorney general, Letitia James, to set up an independent investigation into the harassment allegations and the “circumstances surrounding” them.

But why did it take two months for Boylan’s accusations to be taken seriously by reporters, lawmakers, and law-enforcement officials? Her December 13th tweet received some initial news coverage. “Bombshell Cuo Claim,” one headline in the New York Post read. But, by the end of the month, the bombshell had fizzled. In an Albany Times Union article on December 26th that recapped the Governor’s year in the “national spotlight,” Boylan merited just three sentences. Partly, this can be explained by Boylan’s decision in December not to talk to reporters, and by the fact that she was, at the time, a lone accuser, whereas now she is one of several. But there is another reason: soon after she went public, someone tried to damage Boylan’s credibility and undercut her accusations by leaking damaging information about her to the press.

Within hours of Boylan’s tweet on December 13th, several news outlets reported that they had “obtained” state-government documents relating to Boylan’s job performance in the Cuomo administration. The documents—described by the Associated Press as “personnel memos,” by the Post as “personnel documents,” and by the Times Union as “personnel records”—said that several women had complained to a state-government human-resources office that Boylan had “behaved in a way towards them that was harassing, belittling, and had yelled and been generally unprofessional.” According to the Post’s account, “three black employees went to state human resources officials accusing Boylan, who is white, of being a ‘bully’ who ‘treats them like children.’ ” According to the Associated Press, the documents said that Boylan resigned after being “counseled” about the complaints in a meeting with a top administration lawyer. Reporters who wanted to dig into Boylan’s accusations against Cuomo now had to contend with the possibility that there were people out there who might have accusations to make against Boylan. At best, the documents seemed to raise questions about Boylan’s reliability. At worst, they painted her as a racist.

In a statement, Boylan’s attorney, Jill Basinger, told me Boylan has never seen the documents that the news accounts referenced—which Basinger called a “supposed ‘personnel file.’ ” Basinger accused the Governor’s office of leaking the documents, and also said she expects that the attorney general’s investigation will look into the leak. “It is both shocking and disgusting that the governor and his staff would seek to smear victims of sexual harassment,” Basinger said. “Ms. Boylan will not be intimidated or silenced. She intends to cooperate fully with the Attorney General’s investigation.”

At a press conference last week, Cuomo said that he supported “a woman’s right to come forward,” and that he was “sorry for whatever pain I caused.” At the same time, he pleaded with New Yorkers to allow him some due process. “Wait for the facts from the attorney general’s report before forming an opinion,” he said. That’s how the Governor would like to be treated. But that’s not how he traditionally has treated others. For decades, the Governor has had a reputation for scorched-earth tactics, and for retaliating against those who corner him, threaten him, or simply displease him. As Boylan weighed whether to come forward last year, her lawyer told me, she “believed that she would be retaliated against for going public with her mistreatment.” One former senior official in the Cuomo administration whom I spoke to said it was impossible to imagine that Cuomo himself hadn’t approved the leak of the Boylan documents. “There’s no question he would know about it, and direct it,” the former official said. “That’s how he would think.”

In the nineteen-nineties, while Cuomo was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, under Bill Clinton, he fell into a long-running feud with Susan Gaffney, the agency’s inspector general. In 2000, Gaffney accused Cuomo of sexual discrimination. “Gaffney claims that Cuomo has called her at home on weekends to berate her, has started collecting information to smear her, and has leaked damaging information about her,” the Post reported, at the time. In the same story, a Cuomo spokesperson said, of Gaffney, “This is nothing more than a diversion from her misconduct regarding the downloading of pornography in her office and retaliation for our efforts to get to the bottom of it.”

In 2013, Michael Fayette, a state Department of Transportation engineer, gave a few quotes about his department’s operations during Hurricane Irene to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. His statements were innocuous—“We were up for it,” he told the paper—but they hadn’t been cleared by the higher-ups in Albany. The press found out that Fayette’s superiors were moving to terminate him, and started asking how it was possible for someone to be fired over such a harmless episode. In response, a top Cuomo aide gave a radio interview during which he read aloud misconduct allegations contained in Fayette’s personnel files, including that he’d had an improper relationship with a subordinate. “They can run over you like you’re a freaking speed bump,” Fayette, who retired before he could be fired, told me, last week.

Karen Hinton, who worked for Cuomo when he was at HUD, and who later served as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary, told me that in 2015, during an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the state, Cuomo didn’t like a statement that she had given to the Times. He called one of de Blasio’s deputy mayors and said that if Hinton wasn’t fired he would blame de Blasio “personally” for the deaths in New York City. “When I left the Mayor’s office, there was no Democratic-owned public-relations firm that would hire me,” Hinton, who left the de Blasio administration in 2016, told me. “Because of Andrew.”

In a sense, the dual crises now engulfing Cuomo—lawmakers in Albany have been calling for his resignation not just over the harassment allegations but also because of his suppression of data on COVID-19 nursing-home deaths—can both be traced back to his recent attempts to intimidate a state Assembly member, Ron Kim. Last month, as evidence came out that his administration had covered up the nursing-home numbers, Cuomo called Kim, who had been critical of his handling of nursing homes, and threatened to “destroy” him. Kim went to reporters with the story. Cuomo then accused Kim of “unethical, if not illegal,” behavior in connection with a 2015 nail-salon-reform bill, and his office issued a statement saying, “Mr. Kim is lying.” But Kim’s experience seemed to open up a floodgate. Among those moved by Kim’s example was Boylan. “Last week, Assemblymember Ron Kim spoke out publicly about the intimidation and abuse he has faced from Governor Cuomo and his aides,” she wrote in her Medium essay. “There are many more of us, but most are too afraid to speak up.”

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