Interviews & Profiles
Why Lindsey Boylan spoke up
She calls coming forward the “most terrible” experience of her life, but has she finally brought change to Albany?
When Lindsey Boylan drafted a series of tweets in December alleging that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed her, she had no idea what impacts her decision would ultimately have. She didn’t know whether another woman would join her in publicly sharing her own stories. “I couldn’t ask another woman to go through the most terrible experience of her life, which is kind of what it was,” Boylan told City & State with a dry laugh.
In December, Cuomo was one of the most popular Democrats in the country. He had graced television screens nationwide on a daily basis at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. His popularity and approval ratings hit all-time highs, and he exuded a paternalistic sense of control those shaken by the pandemic craved.
That fact was on Boylan’s mind when she tweeted on Dec. 13 about her time working in his administration from 2015 to 2018. “Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched,” Boylan wrote. Although the governor faced scrutiny at the time over allegations of bullying tactics and whether he was concealing the true number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, his many other scandals – including details around his $5 million pandemic book deal and expedited coronavirus testing for those close to him – had not yet truly broken open.“I’m in the car with my family, my husband’s driving,” Boylan said. “I don’t say a word. I just start the tweets.” She was one lone woman, saying that she had been harassed by the most powerful man in the state coming off his most popular year on record. “Those initial tweets, on some level, (were) an extremely self-destructive thing to do.” The semi-impulsive declaration opened her up to a barrage of questions from a press she wasn’t yet ready to talk to, and placed her in the crosshairs of an administration known to quickly and effectively quash opposition.
“It’s really important that we acknowledge the fact that if Lindsey did not do that, the dam also would not have broken.” – state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi
Boylan said that if it was just her, a politician who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress last year and who is currently running in a competitive race for Manhattan borough president, Cuomo might have been able move past the scandal as he has done with other political disasters like the Buffalo Billion corruption case involving some members of his administration or his handling of the Moreland Commission. As a public figure, Boylan said she knew she was “fair game” to attempt to discredit. Hours after her first tweet, personnel documents about Boylan were leaked to the press that painted her as a bully who left the administration under a cloud of leadership complaints. The leak was reportedly orchestrated by Cuomo and his allies. Cuomo aides also reportedly called around to former staffers in an attempt to discredit Boylan, and even drafted a letter to the same effect they never released. The administration has defended the release of the personnel documents and the phone calls made to former staffers.
It was a nightmare, and she knew it would be. At the time, rumors had spread that then-President-elect Joe Biden was considering Cuomo for U.S. attorney general. That was part of the reason Boylan chose to speak out when she did – the idea that her alleged abuser may wind up in the most powerful law enforcement position in the country seemed abhorrent to her.
The other reason was another young woman who Boylan says reached out to her. Before tweeting about Cuomo’s alleged harassment, Boylan had publicly described the administration as the most toxic work environment she’d ever experienced. Boylan said the woman reached out to share her story of harassment while working for the governor. “I kind of blamed and shamed myself, but then when I heard her tell a story that had all these similar notes, I knew she wasn’t to blame,” Boylan said. She says she felt a degree of responsibility for the young woman, and a degree of guilt, for having experienced similar harassment but doing nothing to prevent it from happening to others. “Not only did I feel like I had to do something, but I also just felt like she gave me a new perspective just by telling me her story.”
Thanks to that woman, Boylan realized what would eventually become common knowledge: She wasn’t the only one with allegations.
After her tweets about sexual harassment in December, Boylan seemed to go radio silent. She didn’t give any interviews or expand on her claims, and her allegation fizzled out of the collective consciousness. But behind the scenes, she was “forensically” putting together a timeline of events, ensuring that she had dates right and evidence to support her claims. She hired a lawyer – she said she’s spent more on legal fees than on business school – and carefully drafted her Medium post, offering up just what she felt she could back up with evidence. “I felt the onus of representing when women come forward,” Boylan said. “You feel like you have to do it right, like there’s a big responsibility.” Her essay included screenshots of contemporaneous texts and emails about the alleged harassment, and dates of specific alleged inappropriate behavior, like when she said the governor suggested they play strip poker or when she said he kissed her on the mouth without consent. “I think it's really important that we acknowledge the fact that if Lindsey did not do that, the dam also would not have broken,” said state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat and a frequent critic of Cuomo who also used to work for him.
Boylan’s decision to elaborate on her experiences gained traction. On Feb. 24, the day her Medium post was published, another former Cuomo aide, Charlotte Bennett, retweeted the essay, adding, “For those wondering what it’s like to work for the Cuomo admin, read @LindseyBoylan’s story.” A reporter from The New York Times who saw the tweet reached out to Bennett, and she agreed to share her own story of working for Cuomo. “Seeing Lindsey’s story was a huge factor in my decision to come forward,” Bennett told The New Yorker in March. Like Boylan, she too described a sense of responsibility to come forward, both to validate Boylan and to make others feel safe enough to talk about alleged harassment as well.
Soon after Bennett came Ana Liss, another former Cuomo staffer who went on the record with The Wall Street Journal. More women, including past aides, current staffers and journalists, came forward to share their experiences.
“I have such love and appreciation – ever-increasing love and appreciation – for these other women because they were like, ‘No, no, no. What she’s saying is what I experienced,’” Boylan said.
Multiple outlets, including The Washington Post and New York magazine, published deeply reported pieces about the general work environment of the Cuomo administration, one many described as toxic and verbally abusive. Biaggi shared text screenshots with New York from an interaction she had with a top Cuomo adviser in which the aide told Biaggi, “You’re both full of shit and a pretty terrible person” after Biaggi wrote a critical tweet about the governor. “I was very proud of (Boylan) because I know how hard it is to speak out against that administration,” said Biaggi, who was among a small group of female lawmakers who were also famously called “fucking idiots” by another top Cuomo aide.
Now, Cuomo can’t avoid the allegations. State Attorney General Letitia James is investigating the claims, having already subpoenaed several women. The Assembly is conducting an impeachment inquiry into the harassment claims and other scandals. It’s still within the realm of possibility that the governor could be impeached, a dethroning of King Andrew that seemed unthinkable just a year ago.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without being destroyed if so many other women hadn’t come forward earlier, fighting for some other incremental change,” Boylan said. In New York, the conversation began to shift in 2019 when the state Legislature held its first hearing on sexual harassment in decades. “We normalized the conversation around harassment and abuse in a way that made people feel comfortable enough to speak about it on a regular basis instead of hiding from it,” said Biaggi, who led those hearings.
They happened in large part due to the advocacy of the Sexual Harassment Working Group. Made up of past legislative staffers who have experienced or have reported sexual harassment in Albany, the group formed in 2018 to push for changes in state law to make it easier for victims to come forward and to create a more accountable Albany. By the end of the session, the state had passed landmark sexual harassment laws, including one that created a less burdensome standard for women and others to prove they faced discrimination.
This is not the first time that a New York governor has been involved in a sex scandal of a sort, but it’s the first time the alleged claims are both unwanted contact and directly related to the workplace. And while sexual harassment is, unfortunately, not unusual in Albany, the claims have historically been made against legislators who have not faced accountability. “The allegations against Gov. Cuomo are different from all past sexual harassment scandals that have embroiled Albany, and … past scandals that have embroiled governors,” said one longtime Albany insider who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “That makes it such a potent story.”
In typical Cuomo fashion, the governor attempted to gain control of the story and the narrative. He said he took the allegations seriously, he supported every woman’s right to come forward and that he would appoint Chief Judge Janet DiFiore (whom he appointed to the Court of Appeals) as an independent investigator. After quick but tense back and forth with state Attorney General James and criticism from lawmakers and members of the public, Cuomo agreed to hand the investigation over to James’ office. Her probe is still ongoing.
The first calls for Cuomo’s resignation happened swiftly after Bennett detailed how the governor allegedly harassed her, asking about her romantic life, whether she’d date an older man (Cuomo was 62) and describing his own willingness to date women in their 20s (she was 25). Before that, only a handful of Republican lawmakers had said Cuomo should resign in response to Boylan’s Medium post detailing her own account. But as more women began to come forward, more lawmakers began to call on Cuomo to resign, with others calling for impeachment. The insider said while all the scandals facing the governor were bad, the sexual harassment allegations were more “explosive” which led to the mass resignation calls.
Boylan said she has spent more on legal fees than on business school.
A turning point came on March 10, when the Times Union published the story of an anonymous current staffer who said Cuomo groped her last year, the most egregious of the allegations that had come to light. Within a matter of days, both of New York’s U.S. senators, most of its Democratic House delegation and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had called on the governor to resign. “I maybe was surprised how quickly the two senators, the New York senators, did it,” Boylan said. “And I was appreciative.”
During this time, Cuomo was avoiding questions from the press. He only took questions through Zoom or conference calls where he could control who asked the questions. Cuomo repeatedly denied the allegations made against him and often would decline to answer questions by citing the ongoing investigations, giving little opportunity for reporters to attempt a follow-up. And he prevented the press from attending in-person events where he would surround himself with friends and allies who would praise him as he made sweeping new COVID-19 proclamations without scrutiny from the media.
Many began to notice a relationship between an update in one of the many scandals and a new positive announcement, often around easing of pandemic restrictions. “It’s a weird dynamic in some respects, because people will say to me, ‘Oh, thanks for getting restaurants open 50%,’ like in a joking (way),” Boylan said. When he finally let the press attend events in person again on April 26, the first question Cuomo faced was about sexual harassment, posed by a capital reporter who hadn’t been allowed to ask a question in months. The scandal was not fading away, despite months of dodging and redirects.
The allegations were also coming out during budget season, when the governor is traditionally at his most powerful and has immense control over the process. But it started off rocky for Cuomo when the Legislature legalized recreational marijuana outside of the budget in March. Many legalization advocates considered Cuomo to be the main roadblock to legalization, never willing to apply pressure on holdouts. Yet in the wake of multiple women saying he harassed them, the Legislature effectively outmaneuvered him and got their own version passed. “The governor’s presence and power is pervasive in a way that it’s very hard to do anything … without the governor being involved,” Biaggi said. But the allegations had managed to weaken him in ways never before seen. “(That they) proved, I think, to a significant number of New Yorkers that he is not the all-powerful, untouchable leader that he holds himself out to be, is a remarkable, remarkable thing,” Biaggi said.
Cuomo’s weakened position from the sexual harassment allegations and other scandals translated into the budget negotiations too. The final budget was much larger than he had originally proposed, included new tax hikes on the wealthy that he had opposed, fully funded Foundation Aid for underserved schools after a yearslong fight, and created a large fund to provide cash payments to unemployed people not eligible for unemployment benefits, which he also opposed. Most of his priorities fell out of the final budget, leaving mobile sports betting and low-cost broadband as the two main items he championed that made it through the budget season. Although he has repeatedly praised the budget as “the most complicated and the most ambitious” in years, he signed it without the usual pomp and circumstance that usually accompanies the celebration of his budget victories. Now he’s returned to making grand announcements – the timetable for long-awaited Metro-North stations in the Bronx, a $5 million lottery to encourage people to get vaccinated, and the return of arts, culture and sports.
“Those initial tweets, on some level, (were) an extremely self-destructive thing to do.” – Lindsey Boylan
“The voters elected the Governor to do a job and he’s doing it – passing the budget we need to get this state through the pandemic, ensuring that much-needed infrastructure projects such as East Side Access are getting done and done on time, and – most importantly – moving heaven and earth to get as many shots in arms as possible,” said Cuomo senior adviser Rich Azzopardi in an email response to a series of questions about the sexual harassment allegations, reported retaliation against Boylan and the governor’s weakened political position. “We’ll leave the palace intrigue and petty punditry to the politicians and the City and States of the world.”
Through all this, though, Cuomo is still in power. While he has been held accountable to some degree in the court of public opinion, he has not yet faced any form of official penalty for his alleged actions. Investigations are ongoing, leaving the governor, his alleged victims and observers in something of a state of limbo.
Boylan and some of the others view the Assembly probe as a politically motivated stalling tactic from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, buying time for Cuomo rather than simply moving forward with bringing the articles of impeachment. “That would inherently have staying power because (Cuomo) would almost certainly be impeached and convicted if it was ever brought to a vote,” the Albany insider said when asked whether the sexual harassment allegations might stick in ways previous Cuomo administration scandals did not. Everyone now is simply waiting to see what might come of James’ report. Cuomo has said he’s eager to tell his “side of the story,” and that he’s confident it will set the record straight.
In the meantime, a Legislature emboldened by Cuomo’s weakened state and by their supermajorities is moving on an agenda at least partly inspired by the numerous scandals the governor is facing. More sexual harassment reforms included as part of the Sexual Harassment Working Group’s legislative priorities for the year recently made their way through the state Senate, as did legislation to reform the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state’s embattled ethics watchdog that approved Cuomo’s controversial $5 million COVID-19 book deal. JCOPE is also notoriously slow in addressing sexual harassment complaints – it still hasn’t held a hearing on a sexual harassment complaint about former state Sen. Jeff Klein well over three years later (Klein has denied the allegations). “(These women’s) voices have taken the venom out of speaking out against the governor,” Biaggi said of the impact that his alleged victims have had in making additional legislative change possible.
Boylan feels confident that Cuomo will face accountability in some way, although she wouldn’t speculate about whether that might come in the form of impeachment, a lost election or something else. But she said her words and the words of the other women, both those who have spoken publicly and those who have given private testimony, will stick to the governor. “This is not going to go away,” Boylan said. “We’re not going away.”
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