ALBANY – A woman making sexual harassment and assault allegations against former Cuomo administration economic official Sam Hoyt stopped speaking with state investigators when she felt the inquiries would not be fair, her lawyer said Monday.
Paul Liggieri, a Manhattan lawyer representing Lisa Marie Cater of Buffalo in a newly filed federal lawsuit, conceded Monday that the state did investigate the allegations made against Hoyt.
But, he said, the investigations came after his client believed the governor’s office had ignored or dismissed several outreaches she made to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office about Hoyt.
He said she felt an investigatory agency tied to Cuomo would not be fair in looking into her complaints against a senior administration official.
“To me it is a matter of when the investigation occurs and who handles the investigation,’’ Liggieri said.
The lawyer said Cater was told by Hoyt, sometime after she began complaining to the state about him, that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE and one of the investigating agencies, was “not going to do anything for her.’’
The lawyer said Hoyt's comments “dissuaded” her from working with JCOPE and that his comments shaped her decision not to cooperate with the agency’s probe.
There have been discrepancies in the matter over timetables and different characterizations of what happened on the state’s part.
Earlier this month, Cater told The Buffalo News that “no one” from the state had talked to her about the allegations she says she brought numerous times to the state’s attention. On Monday, her lawyer confirmed that she had at one point “cooperated” with at least one state agency looking into the matter, but only for a short period. JCOPE was one of three agencies that ended up having some sort of investigatory role in the allegations by Cater.
"Simply, another contradiction for a list that is growing larger each day,'' said Terrence Connors, Hoyt's lawyer, when asked about the comments of Cater's lawyer.
The Cuomo administration said it expects Cater's claims against the state to be summarily dismissed. "The facts here are clear and consistent: the state launched three separate investigations into her complaint and Ms. Cater failed to cooperate with the investigators assigned to examine her claims, '' said Alphonso David, counsel to the governor.
The claims by Cater’s lawyer came as a watchdog group Monday criticized what it says is another disturbing trend involving a senior, male, government official.
“The state appears to have prioritized protecting Sam Hoyt over protecting his victim from sexual harassment,’’ said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY.
Lerner added that New York has witnessed “repeatedly how Albany politicians tolerate sexual misconduct at the expense of female staff.”
The group, long critical of how sexual harassment cases in Albany have been handled, was reacting in the face of a federal lawsuit filed Saturday by Cater alleging that Hoyt, a Buffalo resident who recently resigned his Cuomo administration job, engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment and assault against her.
Lerner, in a written statement, accused the Cuomo administration of “overlooking” Hoyt’s disciplinary controversy in 2008. At the time, as a member of the state Assembly, Hoyt was banned from employing interns in his office following a legislative ethics panel’s finding that he had engaged in an improper sexual relationship with an intern who worked in another legislative office.
Less than three years later, Cuomo hired Hoyt to work in his Buffalo Empire State Development office.
Lerner noted in an interview the current attention being brought nationwide to the issue of sexual harassment and assaults involving high-profile men in entertainment, politics and elsewhere.
“What we are concerned about, particularly right now, is the fact … that here is somebody who had a pattern of abusing power and then he was hired into a more prestigious and higher paying job and now we’re finding allegations that he continued to abuse his power,’’ Lerner said.
“The initial course of conduct was simply overlooked,’’ she said.
The Cuomo administration has said the allegations against Hoyt are still under investigation by the state. "She's asking for an investigation that has already been opened and remains active today,'' said Dani Lever, a Cuomo spokeswoman, of Lerner's request for JCOPE to resolve outstanding issues in the case.
The state Republican Party joined the fray Monday. The party called for an independent investigation into how the Democratic governor and his administration handled the matter involving Hoyt.
The GOP added that a number of questions linger -- including when did Hoyt’s boss, Howard Zemsky, first know of the allegations against Hoyt and the precise process by which Cater’s complaint against a senior Cuomo administration official and longtime political associate of the governor’s was handled.
“The governor is hiding behind politics and rhetoric that his 'record speaks for itself,’ but his handling of this case and subsequent stonewalling is what speaks volumes,’’ said Jessica Proud, a GOP spokeswoman.
Lever, Cuomo's spokeswoman, said: "We take every allegation of sexual harassment seriously, as evidenced by the three separate investigations that were opened by a result of this complaint. This isn't political and anyone attempting to make it so should be ashamed.”
State officials have dismissed the characterizations and said the allegations were referred to the appropriate agency to investigate when she brought the matter to the administration’s attention in 2016, which they said occurred in mid-October.
Cater, in the complaint filed with a federal court Saturday, put the time of her first outreach to the Cuomo administration as mid-July 2016. While she has described her relationship with Hoyt as consensual at one point, she alleges she eventually sought to end contact with him in August 2016.
In the court filing, Cater said the alleged harassment by Hoyt began in late 2015 after he offered to help her get a state job. She was hired several months later by the state’s motor vehicle agency in Buffalo. In October 2016, Hoyt allegedly paid Cater $50,000 to resolve the matter.
While she had signed a secrecy pledge, Cater said she broke it a few weeks ago, after reading about Hoyt being praised by state officials after announcing he was leaving his state job to find private sector work. Cater has said she stopped talking to Hoyt after her alleged financial deal with him.
Hoyt, 55, headed Cuomo’s economic development office in Western New York.
Cater recently took her story of Hoyt’s alleged abuse to The Buffalo News. Her name was not published until after she filed a lawsuit last weekend in federal court in Manhattan.
The lawsuit alleges wrongdoing by Hoyt, and lists as defendants Cuomo and Empire State Development, the agency where Hoyt worked. Cater has claimed Cuomo’s office was slow-footed in responding to, or ignored, her complaints.
The Cuomo administration has denied her allegations against the governor’s office and said her complaints about Hoyt were turned over in the beginning of November 2016 to the Governor’s Office for Employee Relations, which launched an investigation.
That investigation, Cuomo’s office said, led to probes by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the state Inspector General’s Office. Cuomo’s office said those agencies have ongoing investigations into the matter.
The IG’s Office said an investigator from its Buffalo office on Nov. 30, 2016, contacted Cater, but she declined an offer to come into the office for an interview and did not cooperate with the investigation.
JCOPE on Monday said it could not, by law, discuss any of its investigations.
“We submit that she was cooperative. We just say that anyone would be dissuaded, especially in her situation given the power Hoyt had and what Hoyt told her about JCOPE,’’ said Liggieri, Cater's lawyer.
Liggieri said JCOPE could have used its subpoena power. “If they thought in any way, shape or form that my client wasn’t cooperating, then why wasn’t my client subpoenaed?’’ he said.
Liggieri questioned how Hoyt stayed in his job a year after three agencies got involved in investigating the allegations against him by Cater. He criticized the Cuomo administration’s response to Cater’s lawsuit, calling it “a lot of smoke and mirrors and (that) it distracts away from the actual complaints.’’
Cater's lawyer said the issue has moved past the point for review by agencies in the Cuomo administration.
“The time for internal investigations is over. We now put our trust and faith in the alleged facts of our complaint … to a neutral and objective federal judge,’’ Liggieri said.