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Buffalo woman's lawsuit claims Cuomo ignored sexual harassment complaint

ALBANY – The Buffalo  woman who recently told her story of being sexually harassed by Sam Hoyt, a former state lawmaker and top economic adviser to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has filed a federal lawsuit against Hoyt for engaging in a “pattern of committing sexual harassment, assault, discrimination and retaliation” against her.

Lisa Marie Cater, who previously talked to The Buffalo News on condition her name not be used, named Cuomo as a defendant, alleging he and others in his administration “willfully ignored” numerous complaints she brought to their attention of the “horrific acts” Hoyt allegedly committed.

“Defendant Andrew Cuomo had direct knowledge of some or all of the discriminatory and unlawful events which transpired and failed to launch any investigation and/or prohibit the unlawful conduct which was well within his purview and authority,’’ states the lawsuit, which is dated Saturday and is being filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The Cuomo administration denied Cater's claims that it ignored her complaints or that Cuomo himself was aware of the matter.

Paul Liggieri, a Manhattan lawyer representing Cater, said in an interview this morning that the monetary damages being sought are unspecified at this point.

“Certainly we are alleging there are extreme emotional damages here,’’ Liggieri said, given Hoyt’s alleged actions and the “indifference” by the Cuomo administration.

[PDF: Read the entire filed complaint]

The lawyer said Cater reached out to the Cuomo administration via calls, emails and even on Facebook. But he said the concerns were either ignored or dismissed.

“The bottom line is the buck stops with Governor Cuomo,’’ Liggieri said.

Cater and Liggieri are expected to make a brief announcement of their case at a mid-afternoon news conference in Manhattan.

State provides partial details surrounding Hoyt departure

An official in Cuomo’s office this morning said the first contact from Cater occurred in a mid-October 2016 letter to the governor’s correspondence office. By late October, it was routed to the governor’s counsel’s office and by early November it was under investigation by the Governor’s Office for Employee Relations. It was not handled through the Department of Motor Vehicles, where Cater worked, because Hoyt was employed in a different agency.s

Precise dates are uncertain, but Cuomo officials said Cater stopped cooperating or answering questions from the state in October 2016. Cuomo officials said Cater's  complaint was filed without details regarding Hoyt.

Cater recently told The Buffalo News that she reached a $50,000 settlement with Hoyt in October 2016.

Terrence Connors, a Buffalo lawyer representing Hoyt, said his client, a former Democratic member of the Assembly, had "previously acknowledged and expressed regret for a short term, consensual relationship with Ms. Cater.''

"These new allegations are totally inconsistent with her original story and contradicted by her own email and text message correspondence. If she persists with this lawsuit, we will seek dismissal at the earliest stage. In the meantime, Sam will continue to fully cooperate with any state agency that is looking into this matter,'' Connors added.

Former state employee says Sam Hoyt paid her $50,000 to conceal relationship

“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,’’ said Alphonso David, Cuomo’s counsel.

Cuomo’s office this morning said Cuomo was not involved in the situation.

“The governor has never spoken to Mr. Hoyt about this,’’ David said Sunday.

The governor's counsel said the facts alleged in the new lawsuit were not brought to the attention of state investigators by Cater and that some of them contradict claims she made in recent media accounts, including The Buffalo News.

Hoyt was head of the governor’s Western New York economic development efforts in his job as regional president of Empire State Development.

Cuomo ally Sam Hoyt abruptly leaves state post for the private sector

Cater's lawsuit alleges she was searching for a job in October 2014. Cater, 51, told The Buffalo News 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 had previously been 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  caused a worsening of her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other disabilities, the court papers state.

“Astonishingly, Defendant Governor Cuomo (founder of the Woman’s Equality Party) appointed Defendant Hoyt (a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing” to the senior ESD position despite past claims of sexual involvement by Hoyt with a former Assembly intern when Hoyt served in the Legislature.

The lawsuit said Hoyt used his position of political power, by being able to dole out patronage jobs, to “seduce, manipulate, sexually harass and sexually assault the Plaintiff without any repercussions.’’

The lawsuit further alleges that a state attorney – Noreen Van Doren – attempted to bribe Cater with money “to keep quit.’’

The Cuomo administration this morning called those allegations patently false. They said Van Doren is an attorney in the payroll department of the Office of General Services. It said the agency had been in contact with Cater regarding her request for additional leave accruals resulting from a cat biting her.

“Any allegation that anyone offered the complainant a bribe is divorced from reality and is contradictory to the state commencing three investigations,’’ Cuomo’s counsel said today.

Cater, in her lawsuit, alleges Hoyt became “increasingly aggressive” when she rejected his sexual advances. She said he threatened she could lose her job.

In a recent Buffalo News interview, Cater said she was no “innocent angel” in her relationship with Hoyt.

“I felt attracted to what he did for me and felt I owed him something,” she said in an interview last month.

The woman described their initial relationship as “flirty,” and that she and Hoyt kissed “three or four times.” But she said their relationship did not advance beyond that stage, and that by August of 2016 she wished for him to leave her alone.

“It was fun in the beginning but went a little too far,” she said. “It needed to stop.”

In the 38-page lawsuit, Cater alleges that Hoyt bragged about his ability to get people patronage jobs and of his closeness with Cuomo. After she told him where she lived in Erie County, 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. On other times, the texts from Hoyt to her would go from early in the morning until late at night.

She said Hoyt reminded her that he got her a state job and that it could be taken away “with a single phone call” by Hoyt. In February 2016, she said Hoyt sent 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 papers state.

Cater said she first called the governor’s office in July 2016 to complain about Hoyt. The complaints were “ignored,’’ the lawsuit alleges. A second call was met with a response by an unnamed person in the governor’s office that she should “complain to the boss of the person sexually harassing her.’’ She was confused by that, the papers state, because Hoyt characterized Cuomo as his boss.

An email to the governor’s office by Cater was “ignored.’’ She then took her concern to the governor’s Facebook page, the lawsuit claims. Once again, the papers state, she was ignored.

Cater by July 2016 “knew with certainty that she must confront her abuser.’’

She asked to see him and he agreed to meet in a park. She told Hoyt 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!’’

By October 2016, Cater characterized Hoyt as being most interested that she keep “her mouth shut no matter what.’’ She told him her mental health was deteriorating and she might need to be institutionalized. 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 the $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 Cuomo at about that time sent out a generic email – which goes out to people who sign up to receive the regular commentary or news from the governor – 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.

In the contacts she alleges she had with Van Doran, the OGS attorney, Cater claims she laid out the sexual harassment allegations against Hoyt.

“What is it that you want, money?’’ Cater quotes Van Doran as saying in the court papers.

The administration said the communications between the two women were about leave accrual requests by Cater, not Hoyt.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the state Inspector General’s office are still investigating the matter, Cuomo’s office said Sunday.

In the court papers, though, Cater claims Hoyt called her after JCOPE started its probe to say that the agency would not help her because “he was too powerful and was in contact with the governor directly.’’

The lawsuit seeks 10 separate causes of actions against Hoyt, Cuomo, the state of New York and Empire State Development.

“I hope that the bravery of Ms. Cater shines a beacon for other women who are also crying out for help,’’ Liggieri, her lawyer, said this morning.

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