April 14, 2021

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Third Former Andrew Cuomo Aide Describes Inappropriate Workplace Treatment – The Wall Street Journal

6 min read

ROCHESTER, N.Y.—A former aide of Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk.

Ana Liss, now 35 years old, served as a policy and operations aide to Mr. Cuomo between 2013 and 2015. She said the actions by Mr. Cuomo were unsolicited and occurred in the first year while she sat at her desk, which was near his office in the Executive Chamber of the New York State Capitol in Albany.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Liss said she initially perceived Mr. Cuomo’s conduct as harmless flirtations. Over time, she said, she has come to see it as patronizing, and she added it diminished her from an educated professional to “just a skirt.”

“It’s not appropriate, really, in any setting,” she said.

In response to questions about Ms. Liss, Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo said Saturday: “Reporters and photographers have covered the governor for 14 years watching him kiss men and women and posing for pictures. At the public open-house mansion reception, there are hundreds of people, and he poses for hundreds of pictures. That’s what people in politics do.”

At his last public appearance on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo said this behavior was customary for him.

“I understand that sensitivities have changed and behavior has changed, and I get it. And I’m going to learn from it,” he said.

Ana Liss displays a pin she earned while working in the governor’s office.

Photo: libby march for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Liss is the third former female aide to accuse Mr. Cuomo of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. The two other former aides have said he sexually harassed them. Mr. Cuomo has apologized for making people uncomfortable. He has said he never touched anyone inappropriately.

“It was unintentional, and I truly and deeply apologize for it,” he said Wednesday. “I feel awful about it and, frankly, I am embarrassed.”

Ms. Liss and other current and former administration officials said the governor regularly asked them about their dating lives, touched them and commented about their physical appearance. Longtime staffers told some women they should wear high heels when the governor was in Albany, according to Ms. Liss and other former staffers. Mr. Azzopardi said no one was compelled to wear high heels.

The Journal spoke with more than 30 officials who either work or have worked for Mr. Cuomo during his 10 years as governor. All of those officials, who include current and former agency heads, described a high-pressure environment where seven-day workweeks were common.

Several people described the working environment as toxic. Many former staffers recalled the governor’s actions more endearingly. Once on Valentine’s Day, Mr. Cuomo had roses delivered to the female employees, they said. Two women who received the flowers said they appreciated the gesture.

When asked about the criticism of working conditions, Mr. Azzopardi said: “The people of this state elected the governor to represent them four times during the last 14 years, and they know he works day and night for them. There is no secret these are tough jobs, and the work is demanding, but we have a top-tier team with many employees who have been here for years, and many others who have left and returned.”

One former aide, 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett, recently said Mr. Cuomo asked about her sex life and whether she had relationships with older men.

Another former adviser, Lindsey Boylan, said in a Feb. 24 Medium post that Mr. Cuomo tried to kiss her on the lips in his office and, during a 2017 flight on his plane, suggested they play strip poker. A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo has said Ms. Boylan’s accusations are false.

The governor is facing mounting pressure over the accusations, as well as how the state handled Covid-19 in nursing homes. State Attorney General Letitia James is overseeing an investigation into the accusations by Mses. Bennett and Boylan. Federal prosecutors are interested in how the governor’s top advisers pushed to alter a Health Department report to include a lower tally of deaths in those facilities, people familiar with the matter said.

Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats have called for Mr. Cuomo’s resignation or impeachment, but senior Democratic state lawmakers are resisting until Ms. James’s review is complete.

Ms. Liss said she decided to come forward after Mses. Bennett and Boylan accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment. Ms. Liss said the governor’s response to their accusations has been inadequate.

Ms. Liss won a competitive fellowship in 2013 and joined Mr. Cuomo’s team to work on economic-development programs. She already had a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and had been working at a business-development firm in Rochester. She said she was proud of her role in the Executive Chamber but was dismayed that the governor never asked her about her work, focusing instead on personal questions or her appearance.

Ana Liss keeps in her office a framed picture of her and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, taken at a 2014 reception, showing his arm around her waist.

Photo: Libby March for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Liss recalled working at a May 6, 2014, reception at the Executive Mansion in Albany, which is Mr. Cuomo’s official residence. Mr. Cuomo was in a living room on the north side of the mansion’s first floor and noticed Ms. Liss, she recalled.

“He came right over to me and he was like, ‘Hey, Sweetheart!’” she said.

She said the governor hugged her, kissed her on both cheeks and then wrapped his arm around her lower back and grabbed her waist. They turned to a photographer, who took a picture that shows Mr. Cuomo’s hand around her waist.

In the Medium post, Ms. Boylan described a similar encounter with the governor at a Jan. 6, 2016, event at Madison Square Garden. She said Mr. Cuomo stopped to talk with her after a speech, and she was soon informed by her boss that the governor had a crush on her.

“It was an uncomfortable but all-too-familiar feeling: the struggle to be taken seriously by a powerful man who tied my worth to my body and my appearance,” Ms. Boylan wrote.

Ms. Liss said she never made a formal complaint about the behavior of the governor or anyone else. She said she eventually asked for a transfer to another office.

Ms. Liss said her experience working for the governor prompted her to begin mental-health counseling in 2014. She said she drank heavily that year, and she left the Executive Chamber in 2015 to take a position at Cornell University as a corporate-relations manager. Ms. Liss now works as the director of the Department of Planning and Development for Monroe County in upstate New York.

The Journal interviewed two other Empire State Fellows who said they observed Ms. Liss drinking heavily and skipping social engagements when she worked for the governor.

Peter Walke, a fellow who now serves as Vermont’s environmental conservation commissioner, said in a recent interview that he noticed Ms. Liss became more withdrawn over time.

After the allegations by Mses. Boylan and Bennett, Mr. Walke contacted Ms. Liss. She relayed her own experiences to him, Mr. Walke said.

Ms. Liss said she was proud of the work she did during her time in Albany, and still keeps in her office that picture of her and Mr. Cuomo at the reception. She supports the policies he has enacted.

“I just wish—I wish that he took me seriously,” she said.

Cuomo Under Fire

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at Jimmy.Vielkind@wsj.com, Deanna Paul at deanna.paul@wsj.com and Khadeeja Safdar at khadeeja.safdar@wsj.com

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