A collective of former New York state legislative employees on Monday denounced Andrew Cuomo’s apology for his past behaviour, after the governor was accused of sexually harassing multiple women, and called for his removal or resignation.
Members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group also said they expected more allegations to follow – and accused Cuomo of “gaslighting” his accusers.
Letitia James, the state attorney general, meanwhile, announced the first step in mounting an external investigation of the governor’s behaviour.
Cuomo’s difficulties were further compounded on Monday night when a third woman went public claiming that he had made her deeply uncomfortable during an encounter at a 2019 wedding reception. Anna Ruch, 33, told the New York Times that she had never met the governor before, yet he still put his hand on her bare back, clasped her head in his hands and said: “Can I kiss you?”
“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” Ruch told the newspaper.
She added: “It’s the act of impunity that strikes me. I didn’t have a choice in his physical dominance over me at that moment. And that’s what infuriates me.”
The Times published a photograph accompanying its report which shows Cuomo looking down at Ruch with her head between his hands. According to the paper the photo was taken on Ruch’s own cellphone by a friend.
Cuomo, the son of a former governor and himself a former US housing secretary, is one of America’s most prominent governors. On Sunday he acknowledged for the first time that some of his behaviour towards women “may have been insensitive or too personal”. He also said he would cooperate with an investigation led by the state attorney general.
“I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” said the Democrat, amid growing criticism from his own party. “To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
But the second woman who came forward publicly to accuse him of harassment, Charlotte Bennett, a former aide to the governor, said on Monday that Cuomo “has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior”.
“As we know, abusers – particularly those with tremendous amounts of power – are often repeat offenders who engage in manipulative tactics to diminish allegations, blame victims, deny wrongdoing and escape consequences,” Bennett said in a statement. “It took the governor 24 hours and significant backlash to allow for a truly independent investigation. These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice.”
They were Bennett’s first public comments since her allegations were published by the New York Times on Saturday.
And Rita Pasarell, a member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group of former state workers who have experienced, witnessed or reported sexual harassment by New York legislators, said Cuomo’s comments did not constitute an apology and accused him of “gaslighting” – behaviour meant to disorientate and undermine those making allegations against him.
Pasarell told the Guardian: “There is nothing in there where he acknowledges that his behaviour was wrong; he’s not even apologising for his behaviour. He’s only apologising for the victims’ feelings … He’s basically saying the women got it wrong and they misunderstood what he was doing, which is totally insulting.”
She added: “What is also really troubling to me about his statement is that he’s not taking any accountability. We have no reason to think he’s not going to repeat this behaviour again. Which is to say the current staff are unprotected. He is not fit to serve because he is not showing an understanding that he needs to commit to not doing these things again.”
Pasarell called for Cuomo’s removal or resignation and said she believed the two women’s allegations “were just some examples of many, many instances that we have yet to hear of and I think we will hear of more”.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City on Monday also criticised Cuomo’s statement: “He just clearly was letting himself off the hook for something that, for the women involved, sounded pretty terrifying.”
Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cuomo is accused of asking Bennett about her sex life, including whether she had ever had sex with older men, and making comments that she interpreted as assessing her interest in an affair.
Bennett made the allegations days after Lindsey Boylan, another former aide, gave further details of allegations initially made in December. She claims Cuomo made comments about her appearance and subjected her to an unwanted kiss.
Cuomo, 63, said he wanted to be a mentor to 25-year-old Bennett. He has denied Boylan’s allegations.
At first Cuomo suggested the retired federal judge Barbara Jones should review his behaviour. He later proposed that James, the state attorney general, and the chief New York appeals court judge, Janet DiFiore, appoint a lawyer to produce a report. Under mounting pressure, he agreed to demands for an inquiry led by James.
On Monday, James said she had received a formal referral that would enable her to employ an outside law firm to investigate.
On Sunday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Joe Biden supported an independent review that “should move forward as quickly as possible”.
The allegations against Cuomo follow a scandal in which his administration was forced to revise its count of nursing home coronavirus deaths after it was revealed they were severely undercounted.
The Democratic assemblyman Ron Kim, who claims Cuomo threatened to “destroy” him over that scandal, a claim a Cuomo adviser has denied, told the Guardian he believed claims of sexual harassment were part of a “pattern of abusive behaviour and him [Cuomo] abusing power”.
He said: “I believe the women – Charlotte, Lindsey and other former staffers and journalists who are coming out almost every other day with these stories of his abusive behaviour. Now it’s up to the lawmakers and other authorities to hold [Cuomo] accountable.”
Kim called on Cuomo to “remove himself from office”, adding: “It’s very clear that he is unfit to lead our state at this point.”
The Republican state senate minority leader, Robert Ortt, has called on Cuomo to resign. The Democratic state senator Alessandra Biaggi tweeted of Cuomo: “It is time for you to go. Now.”
New York’s US senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and the congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are among Democrats who demanded an independent investigation.
Ed Pilkington contributed reporting