NEW YORK — Sam Hoyt threatened her. He groped her. Finally he paid her $50,000 to keep quiet. And the governor's office let it happen.
Those are the key allegations that former state employee Lisa Marie Cater makes in a federal lawsuit filed here over the weekend. She accuses Hoyt, a Buffalo political figure for decades and key Cuomo administration appointee for six years, of sexual harassment.
On Sunday Hoyt's lawyer dismissed Cater's complaints, saying they are inconsistent with her earlier descriptions of her relationship with Hoyt, and state officials said Cater didn't fully cooperate when her complaints were being investigated.
Who's right and who's wrong could now be determined in a federal courthouse in Manhattan. For now, a story that began with Hoyt's surprise resignation from his state post last month has become fodder for the New York City tabloids, with one weekend paper labeling Hoyt a "pervert."
Cater, 51, didn't have much to say about her lawsuit Sunday. Appearing with her lawyer outside a federal courthouse in Manhattan in the afternoon, she delivered a sentence-long statement.
"It has been very difficult for me to come forward with this, and I have faith that the system of justice will prevail and not another woman has to live through what I went through," said Cater.
A compelling case?
Cater's lawyer, Paul Liggieri, said Cater has a compelling case that Hoyt's actions violated her rights. She alleges the relationship proceeded from Hoyt getting her a state job, and that he used the favor to pressure her for a sexual relationship and that he groped her. Liggieri said that when Cater complained, the state ignored her.
"As her attorney, I can tell you that the evidence shows and the record will show that Samuel Hoyt and the state of New York must be held accountable for their actions," he said, as Cater stood stone-faced at his side.
Hoyt's lawyer, Terrence M. Connors, said he would seek to have Cater's lawsuit dismissed.
"These new allegations are totally inconsistent with her original story and contradicted by her own email and text message correspondence," Connors said.
And Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, said Cuomo was not at all involved in the situation between Hoyt and Cater.
“The state launched three separate investigations in this matter and any assertion to the contrary is patently and demonstrably false, and as such, we expect this matter to be summarily dismissed," David said.
The lawsuit claims that Hoyt, then the regional president of Empire State Development, used his political power to dole out patronage jobs and then to “seduce, manipulate, sexually harass and sexually assault the Plaintiff without any repercussions.’’
Court papers in the case allege Cater was searching for a job in October 2014. Cater, asking at the time that her name not be published, told The Buffalo News earlier this month that she first met Hoyt at a fundraising event and that he later helped her find an apartment and a state job.
Her lawsuit states that Cater previously was a victim of domestic abuse and that Hoyt used Cater’s vulnerability to “lure” her into a “predatory and unlawful game in which Defendant Hoyt sought to control every aspect of the plaintiff’s life.’’ That aggravated her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other conditions, the court papers state.
After Cater told him where she lived, Hoyt began stalking her, the lawsuit claims. In November 2015, the papers say Hoyt showed up at her residence and, when she opened the door, he “forcefully asserted himself against (Cater), unlawfully groped (Cater) and then kissed (Cater.)”
The lawsuit states Hoyt regularly sent harassing calls, texts and emails, and that he made it a “priority” to harass her while he was on vacation with his wife in Florida. At times, the texts from Hoyt would continue from early in the morning until late at night.
Threats – and groping?
Cater said Hoyt would remind her that he got her a state job and that he could have it taken away “with a single phone call.”
Then, she said, in February 2016, Hoyt went so far as to send her a nude photo of himself with the message: “Do you think I look tan?”
“Scared, helpless and knowing that her job (only source of income) was on the line, Plaintiff Cater endured Defendant Hoyt’s behavior despite being on the brink of a nervous breakdown,’’ the court papers state.
By July 2016, Cater “knew with certainty that she must confront her abuser," the court papers said.
She arranged to meet Hoyt in a park. She told him that she was done being abused, the papers state, and that he could “take my job, take my apartment, I don’t care."
The papers claim Hoyt reacted in a “predatory rage," and forced himself on her, grabbing her so she could not retreat.
“Hoyt then groped the plaintiff’s vagina and crotch area, squeezing as hard as he could and hurting the plaintiff. Defendant Hoyt then said, ‘You know this is what I want!'"
Cater's inconsistent story
In response to the lawsuit, Connors, Hoyt's attorney, said: "Sam has previously acknowledged and expressed regret for a short term, consensual relationship with Ms. Cater."
But Connors also noted that Cater's story appears to have changed — and it has, in several ways. For example.
• Earlier this month she told The News that her relationship with Hoyt initially was consensual at first, that she and Hoyt had kissed, and that she was "no innocent angel." But there is nothing in the court papers that indicates the relationship was consensual at first, and when asked about the contradiction, Liggieri said: "I would not describe it as consensual, rather I would describe it as a friendly relationship" at the start.
• The News story said that, according to Cater, her relationship with Hoyt deteriorated in August 2016, while the litigation says she started making complaints in July.
• Cater told The News she had no contact with Hoyt since October 2016, while the suit said they talked after a probe was launched earlier by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
David, Cuomo's counsel, also noted inconsistencies in Cater's story. He also said the lawsuit includes allegations that Cater never brought before state investigators.
An alleged bribe
Cater and state officials offer radically different takes on the state investigations into Hoyt's behavior.
In the lawsuit, Cater said that by October 2016, Hoyt wanted her to keep “her mouth shut no matter what." At that point, the papers state, Hoyt used his “leverage, authority, bargaining power and manipulation to tell the plaintiff, while she was mentally unstable, to enter into an agreement."
That resulted in a $50,000 settlement to maintain her silence about their relationship.
At about the time she signed the agreement, Cater urged Hoyt to tell Cuomo what was going on between them, the papers state. Hoyt told her “that he had spoken with his boss/governor’s office and that defendant Hoyt was told to ‘Make this go away,’" the litigation papers allege.
Cater said that at about the same time, Cuomo sent out a generic email in which he discussed women’s rights issues. She responded to the email, saying: “If you care so much about woman’s issues, why do you allow … Sam Hoyt to continue to harass me both verbally and sexually?’’ the lawsuit contends.
She said she also laid out Hoyt's inappropriate actions in contacts with Noreen Van Doran, an attorney with the state Office of General Services. “What is it that you want, money?’’ Cater quotes Van Doran as saying in the court papers.
Cuomo's counsel denied that any state official ever offered her any such payment.
“Any allegation that anyone offered the complainant a bribe is divorced from reality and is contradictory to the state commencing three investigations,’’ David said.
Liggieri also said state officials ignored Cater's repeated complaints.
"Unfortunately for Miss Cater, she was left to fend for herself as the sexual harassment continued," he said.
But the Cuomo administration said the Governor's Office for Employee Relations investigated the matter, and that probes by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the state Inspector General’s Office are continuing.
John Milgrim, spokesman for the New York Inspector General, said the office's chief investigator spoke with Cater on Nov. 30, 2016.
"He asked her several times to come in for an interview and she refused," Milgrim said. "She was also asked over the phone for information regarding her complaint and she failed to provide. The matter remains open."
The matter remains open, too, before the New York tabloids, including the right-leaning New York Post, which often provides an acidic take on the Democratic governor's performance and which first reported the story of Cater's lawsuit Saturday.
"Shock sex harass claim: Cuomo turned blind eye to pervert under his nose," read the headline.
News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski reported from New York. Albany bureau chief Tom Precious reported from Albany. News political reporter Robert J. McCarthy reported from Buffalo.