Appellate court clears way for former Cuomo lawyer’s lawsuit

Craig Herskowitz, now a candidate running against incumbent Republican Rep. Nick LaLota, is suing the state for both sex discrimination and retaliation.

Craig Herskowitz, a former lawyer under the Cuomo administration, is suing for both sex discrimination and retaliation.

Craig Herskowitz, a former lawyer under the Cuomo administration, is suing for both sex discrimination and retaliation. Craig Herskowitz campaign

A former Cuomo administration lawyer now running for Congress will be able to move forward with his retaliation suit against the state government, an appellate court ruled last week. 

Craig Herskowitz, who is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Nick LaLota, worked as an assistant counsel in the executive chamber from December 2019 until he was fired in August 2021. The exact circumstances of Herskowitz’s termination are a matter of dispute.

Herskowitz claims that he was fired in retaliation for cooperating with state Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation into claims of sexual harassment against former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He said that he was interviewed by the attorney general’s office in April 2021 and corroborated one of the allegations against the governor. But the state government claims that he was fired for making inappropriate comments to a 25-year-old woman who worked as an executive assistant in the office.

After he was fired, Herskowitz filed a lawsuit against the state of New York, alleging both sex discrimination and retaliation. In January, a lower-court judge dismissed the case, but Herskowitz appealed. On Dec. 28, a five-judge panel of appellate judges unanimously ruled that Herskowitz’s retaliation claim should be allowed to move forward.

Herskowitz told City & State that he is still hoping to settle the lawsuit, but if the state continues to refuse a settlement, then the case will proceed to discovery. He said that although he is seeking compensation for lost wages, his main motivation is not money. He just wants the government to release documents related to the investigation into the sexual harassment claims against him, so that he can clear his name.

“I did not want to have this lawsuit at all, I never thought about money at the beginning,” he said. “I initially just said, ‘Hey, just give me all the documents and I can move forward in my life.’ I didn't want the fact that I was accused of sexual harassment to be in the press … But I felt obligated to (file this lawsuit) because of how important my integrity is.”

Herskowitz is convinced that the allegations against him were a perverse form of payback by the Cuomo administration. “That could be him getting back at me for, basically, ‘you're gonna accuse me of sexual harassment, I'm gonna accuse you of sexual harassment,’” he said.

“Bullying and vengeance were a part of the executive chamber’s culture,” he added. “I'm not surprised that I was slandered for telling the truth. And I was proud to stand up for survivors, and I'll always fight for the truth.”

As of now, there’s no evidence that Cuomo had anything to do with the harassment allegations against Herskowitz, or even that the allegations are untrue. When asked about Herskowitz’s lawsuit, a spokesperson for the former governor said “I have no idea who that guy is.” Herskowitz is confident that such evidence will emerge during discovery and ultimately vindicate him. For its part, the state government maintains that there was no conspiracy or retaliation and Herskowitz really was just fired because a younger colleague complained that his conduct was inappropriate.

In a footnote to a legal brief filed in September, a private attorney representing the state wrote that Herskowitz’s lawsuit “does not accurately describe Plaintiff’s interactions with (the executive assistant) and the State is prepared to present evidence of Plaintiff’s inappropriate conduct should it become necessary.” (The attorney representing the state did not respond to a request for comment.)

If Herskowitz does not think that he did anything wrong and the allegations against him were politically motivated, he has that in common with Cuomo. The former governor has also sought to re-litigate the allegations against him in the hopes of clearing his name and running for office again. Herskowitz opposes Cuomo’s rumored political comeback. “He doesn't think he did anything wrong,” Herskowitz said of Cuomo. “But he did foster a toxic work environment, he was a bully, he is very vengeful. So I do have concerns about him running for office again. But I think he feels that he was wronged.”

For now, Herskowitz is focused on his current campaign for New York’s 1st Congressional District, the Suffolk County district currently held by LaLota. The district is currently very conservative but could become more friendly to Democrats thanks to redistricting. Herskowitz’s lawsuit against the state seems likely to continue throughout his campaign, but he said he is not concerned that it will hurt his reputation or distract voters from his platform. “I think this demonstrates to voters that I fight for the truth and integrity, and nothing will distract us from flipping NY-1 and taking back the House,” he said.