Ronan Farrow on Cuomo sexual harassment allegations, complaints about behavior in administration

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NEW YORK (NewsNation Now) — New Yorker journalist Ronan Farrow, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein which helped spark the #MeToo movement, is now taking an in-depth look at claims leveled against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Farrow sat down with NewsNation’s Rich McHugh, who worked with him on investigating Weinstein in 2018, to share what he learned about the allegations facing the governor and how they compare with other claims he’s investigated.

Could you lay out for us and our viewers, the allegations that Miss. Boylan has come forward with?

So Lindsey Boylan really has helped to trigger a chain reaction that has now engulfed Albany politics, and thrust Governor Cuomo’s future into a whole lot of uncertainty. 

And that started with a series of tweets in which she said she had been sexually harassed for years when she worked as a deputy secretary in the New York state government and a special adviser to Cuomo. 

And you know, she didn’t want to talk to journalists, Rich, when she came forward with those claims. And that left a lot of misinformation swirling around. It left her particularly, I think, vulnerable to efforts to discredit her. 

And it took her a long time to be persuaded that there could be a place in the conversation for some journalistic vetting. You know, she talked about not wanting to be picked apart, not wanting to be re-traumatized. 

She talked about wanting to own her own narrative. You know, people who allege this kind of misconduct, very often find it triggering to go through the process of journalistic scrutiny. She has now done that with this story that we put out in the New Yorker. 

And what we found rich is that there is a pretty solid base of evidence, at the very least for the claim that she was telling people that she believed she was being harassed, going back years going back to texts and emails with her mother, with friends, with colleagues, going back to internal communications in the governor’s office, where there were a lot of comments about her looks about the governor’s interest in her. 

So, you know, this is partly about Lindsey Boylan’s interpretation of events. But certainly, it seems like there was a pattern of some of the things that she was talking about, and that from the beginning, she was interpreting it as something that was uncomfortable. 

Now, there are also within that wider pattern, some pretty egregious new claims that she raises, you know, things that regardless of the context, I think are going to merit some scrutiny. She talks about, for example, an interaction where the governor had his dog come in. And, you know, he cracked a joke about wanting to mount her, she says that was the Word, you know, quote, unquote, “mount.” 

She talks about a really egregious, hostile workplace environment where people were teased a lot about their looks about other personal things, where an aide was really relentlessly shamed for his weight. 

You know, she details something that now has been matched in the accounts of a whole lot of other current and former Cuomo staffers, including many that I talked to, which is that this was a combative, aggressive workplace in which people were frequently made to feel uncomfortable.

She details a moment in your piece, where there’s sort of a culmination of sorts. I believe it’s in the governor’s mansion, I believe it’s in 2018, where she says he tried to kiss her against her. Well, tell me tell me about that. 

So that incident allegedly took place in the governor’s New York office, I believe. And she says that, after a routine briefing, one on one between her and Governor Cuomo, he blocked her exit from the room and kissed her on the mouth. 

And that’s a claim she first raised in a Medium post she put up about her allegations. And what is added to that, and in this current reporting on her story, is that she did tell people about that at the time, you know… we found that her mother was aware of that incident after the fact.

So, you know, this is not certainly a claim that has arisen anew in this current furor over Cuomo.

One of the things that I find most fascinating about this article is something that you and I have lived through playing out in a different story, and it’s this kind of effort to discredit her from inside the Cuomo office, allegedly. 

When I read that I was like, you know, “here it is, here it is playing out real time.” 

You spoke to staffers inside the office who talked about meetings about when her allegations first came out, they said, you know, how are we going to deal with this? And they basically, I believe, they went and got her personnel records and decided to distribute those to reporters. Is that correct?

Yeah. So we’re able to kind of, through this reporting, get inside the room and understand a little bit about what happened in Cuomo’s team as Lindsay Boylan began to raise these allegations in December on Twitter. 

You know, they saw these tweets in real-time, there’s a kind of informal brain trust of Cuomo crisis communications advisors, composed of both some current aides like Melissa Derosa, who’s one of his top aides, and Rich Azzopardi, who is his current communications director, and also some former advisors like Steven M. Cohen. 

And you know, we named those individuals. We obviously reached out to those individuals during the reporting and were able to trace how they and a number of other Cuomo advisors responded, which is they flew into action. There was a series of frantic calls to decide what to do. 

And the decision was made to leak Lindsay Boylan’s personnel files, which included alleged complaints that she had been bullying to co-workers, that she had, in particular, belittled several Black women in the workplace. 

And Lindsey Boylan responds to those claims in a, you know, head-on way in this article, and you know, she doesn’t deny that she may have mistreated people in the workplace. What she does say is that you know, there was not ever a formal HR process that could have looked into those in an adequate way that she alleges the governor gathered material like this informally in order to use it in this kind of weaponized context. 

She’s not aware of these specific claims, but she does say I don’t want to diminish the experience of any other woman who interacted with me. And, you know, we talked to several people who did have difficult experiences with her. Now, that said, a lot of the now dozens of Cuomo staffers I spoke to Rich, talked about it being a volatile environment where they found themselves behaving in an abrasive or bullying way with coworkers. 

You know, people have told me in several different conversations. Look, I am a kind person. I don’t treat people badly in the workplace. But in this environment, that kind of behavior was incentivized. So there’s this whole complicated conversation about Lindsay Boylan’s behavior. 

But I do think regardless of what one thinks of that conversation and the underlying claims about her, it’s important to note that this is someone who raised a claim of sexual harassment. And from the jump that was covered, not on its own terms, but against the backdrop of these complaints about her because she was not talking to the press. 

And the Cuomo advisors I just mentioned, were leaking those files from day one. So if you look back in December, all of the first coverage of her claims is contextualized in terms of these sort of unflattering things about her, and that’s pretty striking. It’s a pretty good example of what a lot of people in Albany told me is a wider pattern of Team Cuomo planting combative items about rivals at opponents.

In some of your previous reporting for the New Yorker, you reported on then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and raised allegations against him, which ultimately got him out of office. 

At the time, if I remember correctly, Governor Cuomo demanded that Schneiderman resign immediately. And yet now, if I read this quote, he says “he is not going to bow, he doesn’t bow to cancel culture.” People know the difference between playing politics bowing to the canceled culture and the truth. Governor said last Friday, what do you make of that? 

Well, Rich, you know, I get the question a lot of how do you compare this to other cases; I’ve reported on Schneiderman case included. I’m really hesitant to draw that comparison. They’re very different fact patterns. You know, Eric Schneiderman was accused of beating up several women. And this was behavior that potentially had serious criminal ramifications.

So, understandably, the process was much more rapid. Now. There are serious claims being made about Governor Cuomo as well. There’s, for instance, one groping allegation that has now emerged, kind of indirectly, the woman herself has not made a complaint, but there’s been secondhand reporting on it.

So you know, this, this could fall into a not dissimilar category, ultimately. But on this point of whether it’s important to wait for more information, you know, I certainly would say that I don’t hold all stories to identical standards of seriousness, everyone has to be considered differently. And so sort of the easy hypocrisy argument on Schneiderman versus Cuomo is one that I would be reluctant to make. 

I think that there are serious aspects to the allegations against Cuomo. That should be considered all on their own. There’s a lot of accounts again of a bullying and hostile workplace of people who left that office really devastated for a whole variety of reasons. Those are complex and should be considered on their own merits.

Last spring, when COVID first kind of overtook everybody, our governor was riding high, he could do no wrong. Recently, in January, I believe the Attorney General of New York, Tish James released a report saying that the governor’s administration had underreported COVID deaths in nursing homes by 50%. 

And since then, in that time, we’ve now come to where eight women have come in accused him of sexual harassment and toxic workplace, presiding over toxic workplace. You know, I think in your in your piece, you characterize that as he’s in freefall, where does this go from here? Is he going to remain in office? Do you think?

Yeah, I’m always the least satisfying interview of anyone around the story, even when I’m reporting deeply on the story, because I’m so reluctant to make projections too but it’s clear that the political fortunes of the Cuomo administration have changed radically as you suggested, it’s clear that it’s a precarious moment for him. 

And it’s clear that a lot will ride on the outcome of now two probes that are ongoing, one by the state assembly and one by the New York State Attorney General, Tish James, and we’ll see what additional information comes to light. 

You know, there are several gradations of seriousness of charges that are in the mix here. You know, there are these hostile workplace accounts. There are these harassment claims. Some of them are verbal. Some of them, like Lindsey Boylan’s claim, involve allegations that he did touch people inappropriately, which is something he’s denied.

And, you know, at least one, as I mentioned, does include a still more serious groping allegation. So whether those continue to proliferate, whether they grow more serious and more detailed in terms of what emerges publicly, all of that is going to inform the outcome here. 

But certainly, these investigators we know are moving fast. The Attorney General’s Office has appointed two lawyers who are working seven days a week. 

You know, we talk about them interviewing Lindsey Boylan over the weekend, immediately before our story ran, and they, I think, are as eager as everyone else in Albany to get as much clarity applied to this as possible.

You’ve reported on a number of powerful men in office in the private sector accused of sexual harassment and worse and presiding over offices that are toxic. 

How do these allegations against Cuomo and the way he is responding to them track with other powerful men that you’ve reported on?

As I mentioned before, I really, I like to stress that every case is very different. But I do think that there are some commonalities across several stories that I have reported on, that involve both allegations of either harassment or assault, or both in the workplace, and allegations of other dynamics, like a toxic, hostile workplace, or a retaliatory culture in the workplace. 

And, you know, I thought it was worth applying scrutiny to Lindsay Boylan’s claims, you know, grilling her on some of these tough questions, which was a painful process for her. And I’m grateful she did it, and dredging up as much evidence one way or the other as possible, because I think it is important to understand the linkages between those types of dynamics. 

The fact that so often, people who are accused of making people uncomfortable in the workplace also have systems in place for continuing that behavior. And it certainly seems like, regardless of what one thinks of the harassment allegations about Cuomo, it’s indisputable that this was an office in which individuals who crossed the governor were in a position where they had to be afraid of retaliation and where there was a lot of bullying. 

You know, I’ve again talked to a whole lot of Cuomo employees who have backed that up and seen a lot of documents and communications from within that office that have backed that up. So I do think it’s instructive to understand how often those different types of workplace dynamics can accompany and reinforce each other.

Some of the reaction online that I’ve read accuses Lindsey Boylan of doing this for political gain. And, you know, it’s something we’ve seen play out with other people who have accused powerful men that this is, you know, an attack job or a political tech job. What do you make of that?

It’s not for me to defend Lindsey Boylan. I’m not an advocate for people I report on, I’m a reporter scrutinizing their claims. 

And you know, I told Lindsay Boylan that from the jump, you’ve seen me tell sources that. That said, I do think you’re right to point out that this is a common genre of counter-argument, you know, why now? Is she looking for publicity? Is this cynical? 

Every case is different but I think that it’s important to be skeptical of those kinds of counter arguments by default. 

Lindsey Boylan is someone whose political ambitions I think, as of now have not necessarily been helped by her coming forward on this issue. You know, looking at the current state of her campaign, the current state of her life, talking to people close to her, the thing that you hear very quickly is this is something that had a political cost rather than a political benefit. 

Now, whether you in your final analysis as a reader of this story, come away thinking that that’s the case is your own business. I think there’s a variety of judgments you can have about that, but I was struck by how people like her mother immediately said, you know, this has had such a political cost. This is not something that has been good for her.

I know you have a number of things in the works with HBO, is there anything that you can tell or share with our viewers as to what may be coming down the pike?

Yet another thing where I’m just a terrible interview subject because I can never say anything about reporting that hasn’t hasn’t been readied yet. But there are HBO documentaries that you’ll see soon and I’m really excited about and you’ve heard a little bit about that behind the scenes Rich. 

There’s more New Yorker reporting to come on a variety of subjects so I’m grateful to be able to keep cranking and I know you’re doing the same there.

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