As then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo concluded his farewell address, Melissa DeRosa, who served as secretary to the governor, wrote “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.” That speech marked the end of one of the longest runs for a modern New York governor and the culmination of one tumultuous week after state Attorney General Letitia James released a report cataloging allegations of sexual harassment from several women. In “What’s Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics & Crisis” – published by Union Square & Co. on Oct. 24 – DeRosa chronicles how the administration responded to the report and the following media firestorm in those final days. What follows is Chapter 23, titled: Time’s Up.
Excerpted from What’s Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics & Crisis by Melissa DeRosa © 2023 with permission from Union Square & Co.
* * *
While the media circus didn’t fold its tent, after relentless coverage for months, the cacophony at least somewhat subsided.
Spring came, and we concentrated on vaccine distribution and reopening New York’s badly weakened economy. Announced milestones on major infrastructure projects, like the long-stalled East Side Access at Grand Central Station. Made appointments to the Court of Appeals. A sense of normalcy resumed, while Tish James’s investigation rippled beneath the surface of our lives and workdays. But really, the five months between when the investigation started and the beginning of August was just buying time, delaying the inevitable, a protracted and tortured death march. Andrew Cuomo’s governorship was over the day we were forced to make the referral to Tish James to oversee the investigation.
I was alone in the big red-brick house where my parents had raised us and where Jessica was now raising her own family; that noisy, safe place, where my once-pink bedroom now belonged to my beloved goddaughter, was silent in the growing heat of a summer morning. Jessica, Jim, and the girls had left weeks earlier to vacation on Cape Cod. It was August 3, a Tuesday. I woke up to a frantic phone call from Rich: The attorney general’s office had released a press advisory stating they would be making a major announcement, but they hadn’t tipped their hand as to the subject.
I could feel my heart start to beat faster and faster.
“Okay, Rich, don’t panic. Let me make some calls,” I said, trying my best to exude confidence. “But it’s more likely this is something about Trump rather than about us. The governor had just testified two weeks ago, and any investigation worth a damn would have to consider that testimony before issuing a report,” I reasoned.
Our legal team maintained that, during an eleven-hour session, the governor had testified to a number of facts and circumstances that would require investigators to follow up and check before reaching any definitive conclusions. Particularly when the stakes are this high, the lawyers assured us. It had been five months since Tish James had launched her probe into three instances of alleged sexual harassment made by Lindsey Boylan, Charlotte Bennett, and Brittany Commisso.
My first call was to our outside counsel. I asked that we attempt to determine whether the AG’s announcement had anything to do with us. Standard protocol for state inspector generals and AG investigations on the federal level dictated that our office would be briefed about the report before it was issued. The practice allows the subject the opportunity to raise objections before the issuing of a public report, which always carries the potential to do irreversible damage. Our situation was anything but standard or professional. Over the course of the “investigation,” the AG’s office had been leaking to the press the entire time, asking questions well outside the scope of the investigation, and were actively fixated on rumor and innuendo. They had an agenda that was clear from the start.
I was warned, “I think we need to prepare ourselves that they won’t follow the normal protocol here.”
We knew the report was coming, and we knew it was going to be unflattering. Despite threatening anyone who testified with a misdemeanor if we discussed anything we were asked about, Tish’s office spent months leaking the contours of the report to the press, damaging the governor’s public standing and framing the press’s impression of what the report would look like.
My second call was to the governor. “Tish advised a press conference for today,” I told him. “The reporters are buzzing that it could be our report, but no one knows anything for sure.”
He absorbed this for a moment. “Okay. Why don’t you come over here just in case we have to manage the press and issue our response,” he said, his voice betraying no emotion. Since the legislature had forced us into picking Tish James and she, in turn, chose Joon Kim, the governor believed it was all a setup.
We had spent weeks prior coming up with a rebuttal strategy. Cuomo had prerecorded a video giving his side of the Charlotte Bennett conversations and vehemently denying Brittany Commisso’s claims that he had groped her. He went further, attempting to provide context for the litany of reports that he had touched people’s faces, put his arm around their waist, and hugged and kissed people at events. He absolutely did. Young, old, Black, white, male, female. And there were thousands of pictures to prove it. The governor had been convinced that if people saw the photos, they would understand how ridiculous the hysteria around the entire scandal had become. There wasn’t anything sexual about it; this was the weaponization of everyday interactions politicians all across America engage in on a daily basis. Plain-vanilla meet and greet. We made the concerted decision not to address Lindsey Boylan at all. Most on our team believed that no matter how much he personally disdained Andrew Cuomo, there was no way that Joon Kim – a former US attorney himself – would stake his own reputation on Lindsey Boylan. In our view, she had no credibility, and we weren’t going to give her any more oxygen.
I was concerned about the damage the report would seek to do to the administration, but didn’t believe I personally would factor in much of it, if at all. Yes, I had authorized the response to Lindsey Boylan’s claims, but nearly half a dozen lawyers were involved in and signed off on the initial decision, and the nearly dozen lawyers now involved in the case said unequivocally that it did not constitute retaliation. You are legally allowed to correct the record, and Boylan publicly misrepresented the terms on which she had left our office, they all concurred. As far as Charlotte was concerned, when I first heard that she had said something to colleagues in the bar about thinking the governor had “hit on” her, I immediately instructed Jill to report it to our special counsel, who made the legal determination from there.
I arrived at the mansion to find Stephanie sitting with the governor in the living room, closely monitoring Twitter on her laptop.
“You hear anything?” the governor asked.
“Nothing new, Governor,” I reported. “The lawyers have calls into the AG’s office, and Rich is making the rounds with the reporters. We should know something soon.”
“But, really, even if it is the report, how bad can it be?” he asked, rhetorically. “They’re lawyers – they can’t lie,” he said emphatically.
Cuomo truly believed that, once the public understood the context for his conversations with Charlotte Bennett – that he had a family member that had been sexually assaulted and that, to the extent he was talking to Charlotte, it was through that prism—the entire thing would be over. The single accusation of groping, which came from Brittany Commisso, had zero corroboration, contemporaneous or otherwise, and lacked a pattern. It was a classic he said/she said. Except in this situation, you were asking people to believe that, at age sixty-three, a man notorious for being paranoid, who had lived his entire life in a fishbowl, for the first time ever not only groped a woman’s breast but did it in a house full of staff in the middle of the afternoon. Given those circumstances, how could the AG’s office find the claim credible to the point that they would say so in a public report?
All of a sudden, my phone started to buzz. It was Rich. I raised my index finger. “I’ll be right back, guys,” I said, turning to walk out of the room and onto the back patio of the mansion.
“Hey, I’m over with the gov and Steph. Hear anything?” I answered.
“It’s the report, Melissa. I’ve got it from three different reporters. They’re going to release the report,” Rich said, his words fast and tense. Question answered. The AG’s office was telling the press it was the report before they even let our lawyers know it was coming, a blatant blindside.
Before I had a chance to respond to Rich, my call waiting began to beep. It was Shontell Smith, the majority leader’s counsel.
“Rich, I have to take this,” I said, my voice hurried. “Find out whatever you can, and I’ll call you back,” I said, clicking over.
“Hey lady,” I said, once again trying to exude calm. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Melissa, she’s releasing the report. Tish’s office just briefed the leaders. They’re going to say that the governor violated state and federal law as it relates to sexual harassment and that your office unlawfully retaliated against Lindsey Boylan,” she said, matter of fact.
“Wait, what? Sexually harassed who?” I asked, my heart sinking.
“It’s unclear. You’re my friend,” Shontell continued. “I wanted to make sure you weren’t blindsided. This feels like it’s going to get bad. I love you. Please take care of yourself.”
I hung up; my hands began to tingle, and I felt my chest begin to tighten. I was having an anxiety attack. I looked up to see Steph coming toward me.
“Hey, hey, hey,” she said gently. “What’s going on out here?”
“It’s bad, Steph,” I said, trying to process what was about to envelop us.
I turned to walk back into the house. The governor was sitting exactly where I had left him on the couch. I recounted what Shontell had just reported.
“Sexually harassed who?” he demanded angrily. “On what theory?”
“I don’t know, Governor, but the report should be out any minute,” I said robotically, turning to walk away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I need air.” I could barely get the words out before making a beeline for the back door. Text messages were shooting across my phone like pinballs in an arcade game. Reporters, insiders, family members, all looking for insight into what was happening with the governor.
My phone began to ring. It was Rich again. “Hi,” I answered vacantly.
“Melissa, they are saying it’s eleven women,” Rich responded.
As the words fell out of Rich’s mouth, my mind wandered back to December 2020, after Lindsey first made her allegations on Twitter. She had told Kaitlin that her goal was to get ten to twelve people to make claims against Cuomo. Seven months later, with the fate of the New York State government hanging in the balance, Tish James was releasing a report with the magic number: eleven.
“Eleven? How? Who?” I was shocked to the core.
“I don’t know. Honestly, Melissa, I’ve never heard of these people,” Rich said. “It looks like they are including that random wedding guest whose face he touched. Two random people who he took pictures with at public events.” My mind was reeling.
“You can’t sexually harass nonemployees,” I responded, searching for rationality in an irrational situation. “I helped write the law myself. Sexual harassment is workplace- and gender-based discrimination. How can she include those people? That’s three – who are the other eight?”
“It doesn’t make any sense, Melissa,” Rich readily agreed. “I’m just telling you what it says. She also included that Kaitlin woman who worked for us for five minutes five years ago, who affirmatively said she wasn’t sexually harassed in that New York magazine piece; Ana Liss, who was Howard Glaser’s assistant in 2013, who said he called her ‘sweetheart’ and put his hand on her waist when they posed for a photo; Alyssa McGrath. Oh, and my personal favorite: The doctor who gave him a COVID test on national television.”
“Yeah, apparently, he made a comment on TV referencing her PPE and saying, “You make that gown look good.”
We had entered the twilight zone.
Sexual harassment is a gender-based workplace discrimination law and only covers actions that a reasonable person would find to be more than “petty slights” and “trivial inconveniences.” In what Rich had just described, the AG had included three nonemployees (a wedding guest and two people attending public events), three employees who themselves said they were not sexually harassed (Kaitlin, the DOH doctor, and Ana Liss), and Alyssa McGrath, Commisso’s best friend, who claimed the governor commented on her looks in Italian (even though she didn’t speak the language or know what he said), ogled her from across the room, and called her and Brittany “mingle mamas” when they said they were going on vacation after they described themselves as being “single and ready to mingle.”
“Okay, that’s seven – who else?” I asked.
Mixed in with the nonemployees posing for photos at public events and the women who themselves said they weren’t sexually harassed was a trooper from the governor’s security details – her appearance in the report a complete surprise. Amid ongoing tensions with the state police about unrelated matters, someone else from the state police responded to Tish’s public tip line and reported the trooper. “Trooper #1,” as she came to be known, hadn’t filed a complaint or approached the attorney general’s investigators; instead, they went to her. Once engaged Trooper #1 alleged that over the course of four years, the governor had once kissed her on the cheek, once touched her back in an elevator (another trooper, present during the alleged incident, testified he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary), once touched her belly while walking past her as she held a door open at a public event with others present, and once made a single off-color comment about marriage in the company of her and other detail members. She also retained Gloria Allred.
The state police is, and always has been, an old boys club made up almost entirely of white men. Cuomo believed the organization was inherently sexist and racist in their hiring practices. Of the sixty-five troopers on his security detail, only six of them were women and nine were Black. It was an ongoing battle. The old boys club liked the way it was and resisted change. But Cuomo was insistent that the detail – very much part of the governor’s public face – have more women and minorities. While the head of the detail himself testified extensively about this, the report ignored that this female trooper’s hiring was part of an ongoing push to diversify. In fact, she was recruited and hired to the security detail at the exact same time as another highly qualified Black trooper. The two had the exact same amount of experience. Instead, the report painted a picture that the governor had recruited this particular woman to the detail because he was attracted to her and wanted to be physically near her. What the report didn’t disclose (but which would later come out when testimony was released) was that other evidence undermined the AG’s theory.
After a period of time on the detail, Trooper #1’s supervisor promoted her to be the governor’s driver, putting him and Trooper #1 in direct, consistent contact. But after a few “close calls” and what the governor and the head of the security detail deemed to be risky driving that could “get into an accident,” the governor requested she be moved to another position, and the state police ultimately decided she would no longer be driving him. The governor’s request was that she be moved away from him, a change that meant he would rarely come into contact with her. That fact defied the picture the AG’s office was trying to paint, but rather than acknowledge it, they hid it from the press and the public.
Gender-based discrimination assumes a woman was treated differently than a man. The report also left out the fact that male troopers testified that the governor kissed them on the cheek or gripped their arm and/or patted their back as he greeted them. As the governor would later explain in his resignation speech, “at public events, troopers will often hold doors open or guard the doorways. When I walk past them, I often will give them a grip of the arm, a pat on the face, a touch on the stomach, a slap on the back. It’s my way of saying, ‘I see you. I appreciate you, and I thank you.’ I’m not comfortable just walking past and ignoring them. Of course, usually they are male troopers. In this case, I don’t remember doing it at all. I didn’t do it consciously with the female trooper. I did not mean any sexual connotation. I did not mean any intimacy by it.”
In the end, essentially, you were left with the original three – Lindsey Boylan, Charlotte Bennett, and Brittany Commisso. But if you shoot the bear, you better kill the bear. Tish was shooting to kill. And, when you don’t have quality, you go with quantity.
“Reporters are already moving stories, and the number eleven is in every headline,” Rich said. “She stamped Boylan credible, and it doesn’t sound like they included any of the governor’s context for his conversations with Charlotte or considered his denials on some key details … oh and she’s claiming the Commisso allegation is true and it happened on November 16, so I’ll flag that for the lawyers.”
The press didn’t scrutinize a word or question why some of these seemingly frivolous accusations would be included in the report and characterized as sexual harassment. Instead, they swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker. Worse, they threw around the phrase “sexual assault” with reckless abandon. The New York Times ran a headline declaring Cuomo a serial sexual assaulter, proclaiming it’s been “concluded” that he physically victimized at least eleven separate women: THE FALLOUT FROM THE BOMBSHELL REPORT THAT CONCLUDED GOV. ANDREW CUOMO SEXUALLY ASSAULTED 11 WOMEN WAS SWIFTER THAN EVEN HIS CLOSEST ALLIES EXPECTED.
“I don’t get it – aren’t any of the reporters questioning this? Parsing it? Have they all devolved into being stenographers?” I fumed. “Did they push back on any of this at the press conference?”
“Come on, Melissa. The New York Times put that wedding guest on the front page of their paper,” Rich remembered. “They’re all invested in this. They aren’t going to question something that undermines a narrative they helped create.” He paused before continuing. “What’s more bizarre is Tish isn’t saying which laws were allegedly broken, and she isn’t referring any case to prosecutors or the Ethics Committee.”
“Of course not!” I snapped. “Because touching a wedding guest’s face or putting your arm around someone’s waist isn’t against the law, and law enforcement or a civil body would actually have to do a real investigation!”
Steph was standing in front of me again, “He’s asking for you,” she mouthed apologetically. I nodded. “Rich, I gotta go. Call around to the reporters. Try to see if someone, anyone is questioning any of this,” I directed before hanging up.
I returned to the living room and told the governor what was going on.
“She’s going too far,” he said. “It’s going to backfire.”
“It’s not, Governor,” I said firmly. “She knows exactly what she’s doing. The press is running with it. You can dispute one or two or even three claims, but eleven is too many. People will think where there’s smoke there’s fire.”
Cuomo’s outrage was turning into sheer disbelief. “Melissa, a doctor on national television? A wedding guest? Interactions at public events? Saying ‘sweetheart’? Not to mention the credibility issues around Boylan and the truth about the Charlotte conversations. The press isn’t stupid! They have to see through this and know it’s about Tish wanting me out so she can run for governor!”
Tish James had successfully made herself investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury to produce a due process–less conclusion, which was sure to lead to calls for a political death sentence.
Lyndon Johnson once said, “The difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals only eat their enemies.” Andrew Cuomo was about to learn that lesson the hard way. Just then, my phone buzzed.
Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, was about to address the attorney general’s report on national television. Obviously the president, who himself had been accused months earlier of sexually assaulting staffer Tara Reade, couldn’t afford to waste any time in responding or be at the risk of having his own #MeToo allegations resurface.
The president’s message, the vice president’s message, my message is all women who have lived through sexual – this type of experience, whether it is harassment or abuse or, in the worst case, assault – deserve to have their voices heard, deserve to be treated with respect and with dignity.
I don’t know that anyone could have watched this morning and not found the allegations to be abhorrent. I know I certainly did. And again, the president will speak to this later this afternoon.
It had been mere hours since the AG’s press conference. There was no way Jen Psaki or anyone in the Biden press or counsel’s office had the chance to read, let alone consider the political nature of the report. But that was exactly what Tish James was counting on. This wasn’t about substance; it was about politics. No one would read the report; they all ran with James’s statement, written to create sensational headlines and a rush to judgment.
I reached for my phone and dialed Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president and a longtime close friend of the governor. Two years earlier, as Cuomo was privately considering a presidential run, I flew with him down to Virginia for a meeting convened by Steve between himself, the governor, and Biden at the former vice president’s Georgian mansion near the Potomac. It was there that Ricchetti and Biden appealed to Cuomo to sit out the 2020 presidential primary.
“They said I was still young,” he recounted to me in the car after the meeting wrapped. “That if I ran this time, he and I would cannibalize the middle, and a Far Lefty would get the nomination.” Cuomo, who had been personal friends with Joe’s son Beau before he died and was first in line at his wake, was swayed by their reasoning and gave Biden his word that day that he would stand down and support him – a word he kept every day after.
Ricchetti had known the governor for decades. Their families were friends. If anyone could bring rationality to this moment, it was him. Two rings went by before he sent me to voice mail. I had momentarily forgotten the age-old rule my father taught me as a child. In politics, there are no friends.
As soon as one politician calls for resignation in these situations, it pressures others to do the same, and this wasn’t just any politician. When Joe Biden turned his back on his longtime friend Andrew Cuomo without so much as even a cursory glance at the report, it created a stampede. Within hours, every member of the New York congressional delegation, along with Democratic governors Ned Lamont of Connecticut and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, plus US senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats from New York, all called for Cuomo to resign.
None of them had read the report, and none of them asked any questions, a point underscored by the president of the United States himself when calling for his longtime friend and ally’s resignation, “Look, what I said was: If the investigation of the attorney general concluded that the allegations were correct, that – back in March – that [sic] I would recommend he resign. That’s what I’m doing today. I’ve not read the report. I don’t know the details of it. All I know is the end result,” Biden said.
Unlike at the federal level, in New York there are no legal guidelines for the impeachment process. New York’s constitution sets no standard or basis for impeachment. There is no threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors to consider; it is purely a political process. And, in this instance, it was a fait accompli – the speaker of the assembly said so.
Shortly after Biden spoke, New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie released a statement saying, “After our conference this afternoon to discuss the attorney general’s report concerning sexual-harassment allegations against Governor Cuomo, it is abundantly clear to me that the governor has lost the confidence of the assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office.” The speaker, a longtime champion of due process, then went further, saying that if the governor didn’t resign, the legislature, blindly accepting the report at face value, would impeach him.
Game. Set. Match.
Trial by press conference.
As the cavalcade continued with members of the state senate and the majority leader herself, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, Jay Jacobs, continued to hold out hope.
“Melissa, he has to get out there,” Jay urged me. “The video rebuttal he released is not enough. He needs to be more forceful and tell his side of the story.”
Jay believed the governor had to go out and respond to the allegations on each of the eleven women individually. The problem was that we didn’t even know a handful of who the eleven women were. Tish James had solicited complaints from the general public, resulting in a hodgepodge of random people, half of whom either never worked for us or specifically said themselves they were not sexually harassed. Making matters worse, we couldn’t properly respond because we didn’t even know what they had said since James refused to turn over the interview transcripts from the investigation or any underlying evidence the report was based on.
I hastily convened the remaining members of our kitchen cabinet – the ones who, in the aftermath of the report, weren’t currently fighting for their professional lives. I quickly surveyed the group. No one believed Cuomo should go out and address the report.
Comments and questions flew around the room. It’s a trap. If you look like you’re attacking the women, you’ll get pounded harder. Have we even read the report? Do we know what we’re responding to?
Cowed by the press and the politicians, our outside counsel, former US Attorney Paul Fishman, appeared afraid to respond at risk of getting canceled himself.
Three days went by before we addressed the public. The narrative had hardened. By then, nothing would change it.
Swarms of paparazzi camped out in front of the mansion. Photographers scaled nearby buildings for photos of the governor and his children walking the grounds. Television news crews flew drones with cameras overhead. The press smelled blood, and they were happy to draw even more. And it wasn’t enough to go after the governor; they wanted to take down anyone associated with him, too. Longtime public servants who were involved in damage control when Boylan first made her allegations on Twitter were treated as bull’s-eyes in target practice. No one was spared. Our former counsel, Alphonso David, who had since been hired to serve as executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, was suspended and subsequently fired. Our former communications director and chief of staff were pushed out of their lucrative consulting jobs. Robbie Kaplan, the chairwoman and founder of Time’s Up, whose firm was representing me in the matter, was forced to resign from both roles. Suddenly stripped of counsel at the height of the frenzy, I was left more vulnerable and alone than ever.
And while everyone involved took incoming, it felt like no one got it worse than I did in the press. It began with the Washington Post, who called to say they were writing a story about the number of times my name appeared in the report, second only to the governor’s.
“So?” I asked Rich Azzopardi in the backyard of the mansion as he delivered the news that the piece was coming. “There are eleven women mentioned in the report. I’m brought up in the context of two of them, and in Charlotte’s case, I directed that a secondhand rumor I heard about be taken to counsel for review! Despite what Rebecca Traister or the New York Post have been saying for months, it doesn’t say I fostered a toxic work environment. It actually says flat out that there was no evidence of an alleged dress code! Why are they focused on me?”
“Melissa, after him, you’re the most visible person in the administration,” Rich replied. “And it’s not just you. They’re shooting at everyone the report touched.”
In my case, the people being swept up in the wake of the tsunami included those closest to me. CNBC reported that my father, a New York lobbyist for thirty years, was lobbying the administration as the scandals unfolded, while the New York Post recycled a story about
Matt’s mother being the US attorney. How was any of that news? The press would double down with each passing day that the governor refused to resign.
One day, a story about how I, newly proclaimed enemy of women, had served as the chairwoman of the Counsel on Women and Girls devolved into the next day’s news quoting a handful of blind sources calling me “ruthless” and “soulless” and saying I would “rip your throat out to get what I want.” A lawyer for one of the eleven accusers in the report, Virginia Limmiatis, a random woman I had never met and whose shoulder the governor briefly touched at a public event, issued a statement calling me “Cuomo’s enabler in chief.” I had a target on my back, and no one, not our lawyers or press office, could do anything to stop it.
Basking in the attention the report got, Lindsey Boylan started making public threats to sue everyone involved based on the AG’s findings, and Brittany Commisso, who until that point had remained anonymous, filed a criminal complaint with the Albany sheriff and sat for a national television interview. Alessandra Biaggi took to the airwaves and, despite being a mid-level attorney in counsel’s office whom neither the governor nor I had met while she worked for us, railed freely about the “toxic work environment” she witnessed under Cuomo firsthand. Lawyers for the eleven were having their day in the sun, issuing statements of their own. All the while, Tish refused to disclose the transcripts, interview memos, and evidence she maintained supported the conclusions she had reached in her report (later, we would discover that, based on a fraction of the material Cuomo would eventually receive, hidden from the press and public in that moment, was a trove of exculpatory information).
One by one, five district attorneys across the state announced they were investigating the governor based on the report’s findings.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What is Mimi Rocah – a former US attorney – investigating in Westchester exactly? That the governor kissed a woman on the cheek after asking, ‘May I give you a kiss on the cheek?’ What would the crime be?”
“Melissa, none of this is logical,” Beth Garvey said. “We aren’t in logical territory anymore.”
It was an arms race. Everyone wanted their five minutes in the press, and the media was happy to give it to them, free from scrutiny. The law and the facts were irrelevant. Tish James had given them this cover with her press conference.
“But these are district attorneys!” I interrupted, my voice rising.
“Yep, and they get elected too, Melissa.”
* * *
That Friday, three days after the report was released, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, a politician himself who, years earlier, was caught on tape saying, “I know how to manipulate the law, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it,” held one of the most unethical and prejudicial press conferences I had ever witnessed. He had reached his conclusion prior to his investigation into Brittany Commisso’s allegations, saying, “I think we’ve all read the attorney general’s report. At this point, I’m very comfortable and safe saying she is, in fact, a victim.”
Sitting on the back patio of the mansion with the governor and Steph, trying to figure out what to do next, my phone rang. It was Rich.
“Melissa, there are rumors going around that this cowboy sheriff is going to arrest the governor,” he said, his voice in a panicked rush.
“This is insane, Rich!” I could hear the panic in my own voice, too.
“I know. I can’t stomach any of this. All he’s done for the state,” Rich continued. “I just keep thinking about marriage equality, the SAFE Act, $15. The man rebuilt LaGuardia Airport. He led the world during COVID, for Christ’s sake,” his voice shaking. “It makes me so angry.” He paused, drawing in a deep breath. “This is likely bullshit, but at this moment who the hell knows. I think you need to call Beth.”
I hung up and immediately rang Beth Garvey. Of everyone still in the tent, she was the steadiest hand. “The state police would know,” Beth told me. “I’ll call them.” Beth quickly reported back that the state police had not been told anything about a possible arrest and that it was likely just local media hysteria, but given what Sheriff Apple had said publicly about the case, we should consider it a real possibility at some point.
“What do we do, Beth?” I asked.
“Melissa, they want him out. The press, the politicians,” she said.
“They won’t stop until he’s gone.”
I hung up and walked outside to see the governor sitting at the round table on the patio. The same table we had sat at so many times in the last eight years with his family, with senior staff. Smoking cigars, debating policy, laughing, arguing.
“Melissa, what’s going on?” the governor asked, responding to my drawn face.
There was no way to sugarcoat this one.
“There’s a rumor going around that Sheriff Apple is going to arrest you,” I said. “Governor, the legislature is going to impeach you. The facts don’t matter. They aren’t going to scrutinize a damn thing in that report. The senate has the votes – Christ, the majority leader
publicly announced she’s one of them! The Far Left in her conference wanted you out before any of this. They used this to do it.”
The governor heard every word I said. Nodded his head and looked over at Steph. “Can you get your laptop? I have a speech to write.” At that point, I didn’t know what speech he was going to write. I’m not sure he did, either.
With every passing hour, I could feel the walls closing in. I didn’t know who I could trust or where I could turn. My phone was constantly ringing with unsolicited advice from legislators, outside consultants, and our remaining senior staff, each with their own agenda. I was lost in a fog of trying to discern whether the counsel I was receiving was to benefit the administration or the person calling. And as the hours went on, I could feel the inner circle shrinking. Details about private discussions I had with longtime colleagues, people I truly believed were real friends, about the state of my emotional well-being suddenly appeared in news stories crediting blind sources with “direct knowledge.” Wrapped in betrayal, I could count on one hand the number of people I believed I could talk to honestly. I had never felt more alone.
The next morning, I woke up exhausted. All told, I had slept for maybe a fitful hour the night before. I got out of bed in the empty house I grew up in, walked to the bathroom, and looked in the mirror. I can’t do this anymore. Just then my phone rang. It was my mother.
“Missy, baby,” she said, her voice trembling. “Why are they saying these things about you?”
“Mom, please, please,” I begged, “we’ve talked about this. Ignore the New York Post.”
“Baby, it’s the New York Times. Maureen Dowd wrote a column, basically comparing you and your team to Hitler’s enablers. She references the people who enabled Harvey Weinstein, who raped women. You’re the entire top of the column.”
I dropped the phone.
“Missy? Are you there? Baby?” I could hear my mom’s voice from the phone on the floor. I bent down and picked it up.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m sorry to have embarrassed you and Dad. I’m sorry for disappointing you. I’m sorry for making you all go through this,” I wept. “I only ever tried to do my best.”
“Missy! You could never disappoint me. I’m so proud of you. I love you. Your father loves you,” Mom tried to console me. “You could never let us down. I just …” Her voice trailed off. “I’m just worried about you and your team. They aren’t letting up. It’s getting so vicious.”
I promised to call her later. I had to get to the mansion.
It was time for this to end.
I drove in through the back entrance to avoid the mob of photographers out front, then opened an umbrella to shield myself from any photographers flying above as I stepped out of my car and ran to the pool house. Steph, the governor, Mariah, and Michaela were sitting together having coffee under the awning, shielded from the zoom lenses, prisoners in their own home. No one could move from under the awning without risking having their photo taken and splashed across the front pages of the tabloids.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Governor. Can I talk to you?” I asked.
He stood up and followed me into the pool house, sliding the glass door shut behind us.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I can’t do this. It’s too much. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. This person they’ve turned me into. I worked my whole life. I tried so hard. I did so much. I gave up so much. Now I’m Hitler’s enabler?”
“Fuck Maureen Dowd, Melissa! Do you know how many years she spent going after Hillary Clinton? She should have had to register her columns as an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign!” the governor swore. “You can’t listen to these people. You know the truth. You know who you are. You know what you’ve done for the people of this state, and the rest of this is just noise.” Cuomo’s instinct was always to stay and fight, but I didn’t have any fight left in me.
“It’s not just about me. I can’t hurt my family like this anymore. I don’t want to quit. I don’t want to leave the team. I know what they are doing. But they’re not going to stop. I’m not as strong as you are.” I took a deep breath. My whole body was shaking now.
Cuomo pulled me in close, “Okay, okay,” he said in a paternal whisper. “It’s going to be okay. Shush. It’s going to be okay, I promise you.
Take a deep breath. It’s all going to be okay.” The governor told me that whatever I decided I needed to do, he understood and supported me 100 percent, just as I had supported him for the preceding eight and a half years.
Stephanie left with me, and together we drove around the corner to Hill Street, a hole-in-the-wall pub nearby, safe from the prying eyes of photographers, to see Rich. Strong and resolute, he urged me to soldier on. “I know what this is doing to you, but don’t let them win, Melissa.”
I got in the car and drove to my brother’s house fifteen minutes away. I didn’t know what to do or who I could talk to. Joey pulled me in close and told me it was going to be okay. He urged me to shut out the noise and seek guidance from someone with only my best interests at heart. Someone who could be dispassionate about the circumstances. I knew who best fit that description: the man who had mentored me as a child decades earlier. My father’s first business partner, Norman Adler.
“Melissa, you have to get out of there,” Norman said unequivocally. “The governor is a big boy. He will decide for himself how this plays out. And, honest to God, I believe in a year or two everyone will look back on this and see that it was driven by politics and hysteria. But at this moment, you have to protect you. No one else is going to do that for you. Only you can. Hang up with me and call a reporter.”
Without telling the governor or a single person on our staff, I stood in my brother’s kitchen with him and his wife, Kathleen, looking on, and dialed Jimmy Vielkind at the Wall Street Journal. Jimmy and I had fought like cats and dogs during the year prior, but we had a working relationship that had extended over a decade. If there was anyone I would feel comfortable speaking to at that moment, it was Jimmy.
“I know we’ve fought a lot over the last year, Jimmy, but just know that all I ever tried to do was my job,” I said. I had a prepared statement I wanted to send to him.
Earlier in the day, I had asked two of our outside consultants to draft something that I could hold in my back pocket in case I decided to pull the trigger:
It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve the people of New York for the past ten years. New Yorkers’ resilience, strength, and optimism through the most difficult times has inspired me every day. Personally, the past two years have been emotionally and mentally trying. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have worked with such talented and committed colleagues on behalf of our state.
I gave Jimmy the statement, made one more call to Zack Fink at NY1, and turned off my phone.
I knew the rest would take care of itself from there. I resigned as a way to remove myself from the fire but woke up the next morning to find I had stoked it. My resignation was being used against the governor because the statement hadn’t mentioned him specifically by name.
Some in the media speculated that I felt betrayed by him and the report’s findings. Others said I was resigning because there was no political path forward. They couldn’t have been further divorced from reality. I picked up the phone and called Steph. I knew I should stay away, but I couldn’t. I needed to be there to help navigate whatever was coming next, but I also couldn’t take any more press focused on me. Channeling our inner Laverne & Shirley, we hatched a plan that I would hide in the back seat of her car under a blanket, out of photographers’ sight. (Little did we know the Daily Mail had photographers staked out, chronicling the entire escapade.)
When I arrived at the mansion, the governor was sitting on the couch, editing a speech he had been working on. The next day, his attorney Rita Glavin – who, after meeting Cuomo and reviewing the facts of his case, felt so passionately that what was happening was wrong that she had quit her lucrative white-collar practice to take him on as her main client – would give a presentation knocking down key elements of the attorney general’s report. The report’s finding that Commisso had been groped on November 16 had been checked against mansion logs and Commisso’s own emails, which provided evidence proving there was no possible way that the incident she described could have occurred. Not only had the AG’s report not been corroborated; it was clear that claims raised in it hadn’t even been properly investigated. Rita, a former federal prosecutor who had previously served as the head of the DOJ’s criminal division, planned to lay out her case, using what little evidence she had access to at that point, emphasizing that the governor did not sexually harass anyone, let alone eleven women.
The governor would give a speech after.
“What are you going to say?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” he answered, without looking up.
He made his decision overnight. After serving 3,874 days as governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo would resign. The fix was in. With the assembly and senate having already announced their intention to impeach and remove him from office, the legislature was not a place where he would receive a fair hearing. But even more than that, he couldn’t stomach what the situation was doing to the people around him. The report had said that his brother, Chris, had been involved in conversations early on about how to respond to the allegations, and now he, too, was in the media’s crosshairs. The governor’s daughters were watching their father being labeled a “sex predator,” even though the single claim that he had forcibly touched anyone – Brittany Commisso’s – didn’t stand up under scrutiny. And after sacrificing any semblance of their personal lives for the past year and a half to help construct a viable template for the nation to combat COVID, his loyal staff was being torn to pieces.
I didn’t know for sure what he was going to do until the governor handed me a draft of the speech that Tuesday morning, August 10, 2021. I read it and started to cry. “Don’t do it,” I begged. “Not for me. Not for Chris. Not for anyone else. Keep fighting. I’ll help you,” I pleaded.
“I’ve made my decision, Melissa. It’s time.”
He had asked me to stay back and not come to New York City for the press conference; I was too emotional, and it would only make it harder. But I refused, and Stephanie, Mariah, Michaela, and I boarded the helicopter with him that morning.
When we arrived at the office, there was one call left for me to make.
Seven months earlier, the decision to remove our lieutenant governor from the ticket was made for the second time in four years, a message delivered to her by Howard Zemsky and Bill Mulrow in January 2021. But unlike in 2018, this time around, she’d relented,
under the condition that we find her a job in the federal government. But our close relationship with the incoming Biden administration wasn’t enough to secure her top choice: ambassador to Canada. Instead they offered deputy secretary of the Commerce Department. We were days away from finalizing the arrangement when the allegations against Cuomo began to unfurl back in February. I hadn’t spoken with her since.
Now I picked up the phone to inform Kathy Hochul that the governor was planning to resign, effective in fourteen days.
“I don’t think we need fourteen days, Melissa. Lieutenant governors are trained and prepared to take over at a moment’s notice,” she declared. What a joke. Straight out of HBO’s Veep central casting, Hochul had spent the last seven years cutting ribbons on Cuomo’s projects and giving speeches at second-tier events that didn’t rise to the governor’s level.
For her, government was about photo ops. She had never been involved in a single substantive policy or operational decision. She didn’t know how to negotiate with the legislature or handle a disaster like Hurricane Sandy. For the first time in days, I was no longer sad. Hochul’s arrogance, for a brief moment, snapped me back to me.
“Kathy, no offense, but you don’t know what you don’t know, including how to run a government. Governor Cuomo is stepping down for the good of New York,” I said. “He’s not handing over the reins in some haphazard way that hurts the people of this state. We will transition properly over the next two weeks.” It wouldn’t take long for the people of New York to understand just how ill-equipped Hochul was for the job.
The governor headed down to the press conference room on the thirty-eighth floor of 633 Third Avenue, instructing Stephanie, Michaela, Mariah, and me to stay in his office on the thirty-ninth floor. This would be too difficult for him with us in the room.
He delivered one of the best speeches of his life that day, passionately pushing back against the attorney general’s report and recounting a decade’s worth of accomplishments, from marriage equality and the smartest gun-safety laws in America to a $15 minimum wage and the nation’s strongest paid-family-leave plan. He recalled countless emergencies he had managed, from fires, floods, hurricanes, and superstorms to COVID. He cited the state budgets we’d balanced, the free college tuition program he’d enacted, and the new airports, railroads, transit systems, and roads that he built.
And then, he shocked the nation when he said:
Now, you know me. I’m a New Yorker, born and bred. I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy because I truly believe it is politically motivated. I believe it is unfair and it is untruthful, and I believe that it demonizes behavior that is unsustainable for society. If I could communicate the facts through the frenzy, New Yorkers would understand. I believe that, but when I took my oath as governor, then it changed. I became a fighter, but I became a fighter for you, and it is your best interests that I must serve. This situation by its current trajectory will generate months of political and legal controversy. That is what is going to happen. That is how the political wind is blowing. It will consume government. It will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It will brutalize people.
The state assembly yesterday outlined weeks of process that will then lead to months of litigation, time and money that government should spend managing COVID, guarding against the Delta variant, reopening upstate, fighting gun violence, and saving New York City. All that time would be wasted. This is one of the most challenging times for government in a generation. Government really needs to function today. Government needs to perform. It is a matter of life and death – government operations. And wasting energy on distractions is the last thing that state government should be doing. And I cannot be the cause of that.
New York tough means New York loving, and I love New York, and I love you. And everything I have ever done has been motivated by that love. And I would never want to be unhelpful in any way. And I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing. And, therefore, that’s what I’ll do because I work for you, and doing the right thing is doing the right thing for you. Because as we say, “It’s not about me. It’s about we.”
After he finished his remarks, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. He walked around hugging each staffer there, thanking them for their service, for believing in him and for fighting every day for the people of New York. Heading out the door, he turned and, with a half smile, said, “Sorry for hugging all of you; apparently, that’s what constitutes sexual harassment now,” his words underscoring the bizarre nature of the moment we found ourselves in.
He walked upstairs to find Rita, Steph, Michaela, Mariah, and me in his office with the door closed. He hugged his daughters, consoling them, telling them it was going to be okay.
All of this was a lot of things. But it wasn’t okay.
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