Ex-Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa details efforts to combat Cuomo’s unraveling

DeRosa’s account of her time in the executive chamber was made public on Monday after state Attorney General Letitia James’ office released a transcript of her eight-hour interview with investigators.

Melissa DeRosa described a contentious and chaotic work environment in the executive chamber during the final months of Gov. Cuomo's tenure.

Melissa DeRosa described a contentious and chaotic work environment in the executive chamber during the final months of Gov. Cuomo's tenure. Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Former top aide to ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, described a contentious and chaotic work environment in the executive chamber during the final months of his tenure in an interview with investigators from the state Attorney General’s office – and denied witnessing the governor behaving inappropriately. 

DeRosa’s account was made public on Monday, after new transcripts and video interviews with Cuomo staffers and advisors were released by state Attorney General Letitia James’ office, following the conclusion of her office’s investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against the former governor.

Investigators grilled DeRosa – who stepped down shortly before Cuomo resigned in August on the heels of James’ bombshell report that found his 11 accusers were credible – about allegations that she wielded unfettered power in the executive chamber and was known to berate staffers, characterizations she largely denied. 

Part one of DeRosa’s interview with investigators reveals an executive chamber tightly controlled by a series of protocols, including the use of Blackberry pin messaging, an insulated inner circle and organizing war rooms to discuss a New Yorker interview with Lindsay Boylan.

DeRosa said she never saw Cuomo engage in sexual harassment and blasted the work performance of his first accuser, Boylan, while downplaying accusations made by another, Charlotte Bennett.

She also divulged her own personal struggles as Cuomo began drowning in allegations, describing one instance where the situation drove her to spend the work day drinking wine and venting to a friend. 

The interviews released Monday also include testimony from Cuomo confidants executive secretary Stephanie Benton and spokesperson Rich Azzopardi, along with Cuomo’s younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. They are among 16 witnesses interviewed whose transcripts were released Monday.

The latest document dump follows the Nov. 10 release of hundreds of pages of transcripts taken from Cuomo’s own testimony, along with those of 10 of his accusers.

DeRosa’s eight-hour July 5 interview was conducted by attorneys Jennifer Kennedy Park, Lorena Michelen and Joon Kim, of the law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton; along with Anne Clark of Vladeck Raskin and Clark; and Sean Hecker, Shawn Crowley and Justin Horton, all from Kaplan Hecker and Fink. Excerpts from DeRosa’s interview are in italics (parenthesis indicate our own additions for clarity) and our takeaways are in bold.

DeRosa described a high-pressure environment in Cuomo’s executive chamber, but downplayed reports that she often yelled at other staffers.

I don't think I scream at people. I certainly have raised my voice ( . . .) I mean, I don’t view it as yelling. I get animated. I get short with people sometimes, but it’s not like gratuitous screaming for the sake of screaming.

DeRosa acknowledged that she was counseled by then-Chief of Staff Jill DeRosiers to soften her approach in dealing with other staffers.

I think (Jill) understood that I was a little bit – I think that Jill thought that I was a little bit too hands-on and micromanaging in some regards, and so she sought to put a little bit more cushion between me and some of the people that she felt like that management style wouldn't be effective with.

DeRosa accused Lindsey Boylan, one of Cuomo’s first public accusers, of problematic behavior, including breaching protocol by contacting the governor directly. 

She just had this natural tendency to be very aggressive and obnoxious to people, regardless of their station, age; it didn't matter. It was everything from the assistants to the commissioners and to her boss, who was the state operations director.

DeRosa requested a disciplinary file be created on Boylan, who has accused the governor’s office of retaliating against her by airing her personnel documents.

In my experience, when you have personnel issues, you have to document them. And so I was saying, we have an issue, the state operations director, who is her official boss, is saying she needs to be counseled. So I think you have to create – start to create a record.

DeRosa suggested that Cuomo’s gesture of sending Valentine’s Day flowers to every woman on the executive floor was an idea that came from Cuomo’s ex-girlfriend, celebrity chef Sandra Lee.

The mansion staff does it pretty automatically at this point. I think it was actually a Sandra idea at the beginning.

DeRosa described an army of staffers dispatched to deal with unflattering press inquiries and specifically mentioned a team who dealt with questions from New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow, who profiled Boylan

There was sort of a revolving group of people that were involved in press responses, so I don't want to give you a complete list because I may be wrong, but certainly me, Peter, Rich, probably Lis, probably Jeff – and I'm sorry. Lis Smith, Jeff Pollack. Probably Josh Vlasto. Some iteration of that group.

Probably – and then we would always have the lawyers on, so either Linda, Beth, Judy, some iteration of the legal team.

In a nod to allegations made by Cuomo accuser Charlotte Bennett that Cuomo sang “Danny Boy” to her, DeRosa claimed that Cuomo’s singing was a regular occurrence. The song was “a thing with (Cuomo) and (former communications staffer) Dani Lever,” DeRosa said.

He would sing it to her, and she would sing it back to him and, you know, that was, like, their – it was just, like, a little thing between the two of them.

DeRosa suggested Bennett could have misinterpreted her interactions with the governor because she is a victim of a previous sexual assault. 

I have (redacted) that have been sexually assaulted, and I understand how, when you've gone through that kind of traumatic experience, that you can perceive things through a certain lens … I – when you have a perception of that, and it's so different from the reality, you have to wonder what else is getting lost in translation.

DeRosa became visibly upset in front of investigators – to the point where they asked if she needed a tissue – when recalling how she confronted Cuomo about Bennett’s allegations that he asked about her sex life. Repeating a previously reported detail, DeRosa said she became so frustrated that she fled the car while Cuomo was driving her at a traffic light and met up with a friend for drinks.

I understood, based on my conversation with him and (counsel) Judy (Mogul), what his side of it was, and it just – it just, it's like, what were you thinking?

DeRosa said she spoke to Cuomo later that day, after she exited the car, but didn’t remember the conversation because she’d been drinking.

Q: You don’t remember anything about the conversation with the governor?

A: No. I had been drinking ...  A couple glasses of wine but I hadn’t eaten.

DeRosa denied allegations, that were later made public in an anonymously sourced New York Post story, that she was seen “making out” with Cuomo.

Q: Has the governor ever kissed you on the mouth?

A: No.

Executive chamber employees were still using BlackBerrys, and communicated “sensitive information” with Cuomo via unretained pin messages.

It's not confidential communication. It's like, instead of texting, you pin. If – there's a document retention policy that the state dictates on certain documents that have to be retained. It's mostly official memos.

But beyond that, there's no requirement to save anything, and so it doesn't matter. Unless you're under litigation hold or you're involved in a lawsuit.

Despite previous claims made in James’ August report that Cuomo requested the unidentified female State Trooper who accused him of inappropriately touching her be transferred to his detail – even though she did not meet the minimum qualifications –  DeRosa said the call was made by detail commander Vincent Straface.

It wasn't, like … you saw someone at a traffic stop, and you were, like, hey, like, you know, chicky, get in the car, kind of thing.

Cuomo called Albany Times-Union editor Casey Seiler himself after DeRosa said she urged the paper to kill a story about how the Trooper was hired. DeRosa said she told Seiler in a heated conversation that the suggestion that Cuomo targeted the Trooper for her looks was “sexist.”

(Cuomo told Seiler) "Don't get mad at Melissa for being so amped up This is one of those topics that sends her off a cliff," and they, like, had a nice talk about the holidays. I was like – I only know that because then Casey called me back and said, "It's an unusual day when you're the bad cop and he's the good cop."