Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to control the investigation of sexual harassment allegations against him is a classic move by a powerful man. And it explains why many women who have been sexually harassed are afraid to come forward. Their biggest fear is a whitewash to protect the powerful man they have accused.
In the corporate world, executives who are accused of sexual harassment often respond by hiring a prominent law firm to conduct an investigation. Their company pays the law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sometimes a million dollars or more, for a team of lawyers to review documents and emails, conduct interviews, and write a lengthy report. The lawyers almost always conclude either that the client that hired them did nothing wrong, or that while mistakes may have been made, the client that hired them did not violate any laws.
Cuomo’s first move was to follow the corporate executive playbook. He wanted to choose and hire a partner at a prominent law firm to conduct the investigation. Whether or not that particular lawyer would have conducted a legitimate investigation is irrelevant. Allowing the accused to choose the investigator would have sent a message to his accusers that the investigation was rigged.
Imagine for a moment that you are a victim of sexual harassment. You are concerned that accusing a powerful man will have an impact on your privacy and your career. You decide that you must come forward despite those risks. You have faith that the justice system will seek out the truth. Then the person who sexually harassed you announces that he will choose and hire the investigator. It does not inspire confidence in the outcome.
Having failed at his attempt to hire his own investigator, Cuomo next tried to get the New York Attorney General and the Chief Judge to choose an investigator. With one caveat. The so-called investigator would not have the power to subpoena any witnesses.
Fortunately, New York Attorney General Letitia James is no Bill Barr. A person of integrity, she insisted that the investigation be conducted according to New York law. She will appoint an independent investigative team, deputize them as attorneys in the Attorney General’s office, and give them full investigatory power under state law.
Attorney General James has promised “a rigorous and independent investigation.” Everyone involved – the Governor, his accusers, and the public – should want nothing less.