New bill would give AG more power to investigate sexual harassment in state government

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
Attorney General Letitia James, left, has begun the process of  launching an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, after receiving approval from the state’s executive chamber on March 1. A new bill would give the AG’s office more power to investigate future allegations of sexual misconduct across state government.

A new bill was introduced on March 1 by Assemblyman Mike Lawler to increase the Attorney General’s authority in investigating sexual misconduct in the state government.

The introduction of the bill follows allegations from three women of sexual misconduct by Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the past week. Last week, two former aides of Cuomo, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, spoke out on their experiences of sexual harassment while working for his administration. 

“Two former aides have bravely spoken regarding sexual harassment at the hands of Governor Cuomo. Their testimony and bravery deserve a truly independent investigation that is free from interference by their accused abuser, the Governor,” said Lawler, R-Pearl River. 

Assemblyman Lawler

“The best way to ensure an independent and just investigation is to expand the attorney general’s authority to investigate claims of sexual misconduct and assault in state government. Nobody, not even the Governor, is above the law.”

Lindsey Boylan, 36,  the deputy secretary for Economic Development and a special advisor to Governor Cuomo from 2015 to 2018, was the first of the women to share her story. She recounted a conversation in which Cuomo suggested they play strip poker, and at one point kissed her nonconsensually, in a Medium post last week.

“Cuomo has created a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected,” Boylan said. 

Charlotte Bennett, 25, who worked as health policy advisor and executive assistant to Cuomo until November of 2020, spoke of instances in which Cuomo had asked her personal questions about her sex life, and insinuated he would be willing to have a sexual relationship with her. Bennett told The New York Times “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared.”

A third woman, Anna Ruch, spoke out on an uncomfortable encounter she had with Cuomo at a wedding where he asked if he could kiss her, and put his hands on her face and lower back.

Lawler’s bill, which does not yet have a bill number assigned, would amend Section 63 of the Executive Law which dictates what duties the New York State Attorney General possesses.  The new bill would expand the authority of the position to allow for deeper investigation into sexual misconduct in state government. 

Attorney General Letitia James has begun the process of  launching an investigation into these allegations after receiving approval from the state’s executive chamber on March 1. The letter of approval addressed to James from Beth Garvey, Special Counsel and Senior Advisor to the governor, allows James to select a special deputy responsible for conducting an investigation.

In attempts to take control of the investigation, Cuomo first proposed retired federal judge Barbara Jones conduct the investigation. When that plan failed he suggested James work with Janet DiFiore, who serves the state’s Court of Appeals as chief judge. However, James rejected his requests and asked to take over an independent probe. 

For the time being, James’ involvement in the investigation remains limited, as her powers only allow her to oversee the investigation being conducted by an independent firm. Lawler and other state officials with this new bill would allow James’ to have more involvement in the investigation herself.

Lawler’s bill proposes a new subdivision under Section 63 of Executive Law. The bill draft received by The Legislative Gazette from Lawler’s office in Pearl River would allow the Attorney General’s Office to do the following:

“Investigate the alleged commission of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexual abuse or sexual assault with respect to statewide elected officials, members of the legislature employees of the legislature, state officers and employees… and to prosecute persons the person or persons believe to have committed the same and any crime or offense arising out of such investigation or prosecution or both, including but not limited to appearing before and presenting all such matters to a grand jury.” 

As women have begun to share their stories, some lawmakers and other officials from both parties have called on Cuomo to resign, turning power over to Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. 

Lawler’s bill would ensure that survivors of sexual harassment are protected and encouraged to speak up on their experiences within state government, reinforcing a no tolerance policy for sexual harassment and bullying within New York’s political climate.

“We have to set the example that no matter what position your accuser is in, you have the right to speak freely on your experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, and that no one has the right or ability to silence you,” Lawler said.