A state ethics panel may have dismissed sexual harassment charges against former economic development guru Sam Hoyt, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s political opponents have not.
Last week’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) conclusion exonerating Hoyt of sexual harassment and assault charges brought by a former state employee is catapulting the issue into the campaign for governor. Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon, Republican nominee Marc Molinaro, state GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox, and good-government groups have all weighed in, criticizing JCOPE as a Cuomo-controlled rubber stamp that ruled in favor of a onetime close aide to the governor.
Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, came out swinging soon after The Buffalo News on Sunday reported the JCOPE ruling. He said the panel “has no integrity” and “should be viewed with deep skepticism.”
“Make no mistake about it: JCOPE is a direct political appendage of Andrew Cuomo and its decision reeks of another whitewash,” he said. “If elected governor, I have pledged to tear down this kangaroo court and replace it with a truly independent watchdog that will be beholden to the people, not to the politicians.”
He pointed to commission members appointed by Cuomo – six are named by the governor; eight by the Legislature – while noting that Executive Director Seth H. Agata is a former acting counsel to the governor in the Capitol’s Executive Chamber. He called the panel “an ethics commission in name only, rigged from the start to benefit a constitutionally corrupt administration.”
The campaign of Nixon, the actress-activist who has been hounding Cuomo in a primary challenge, said JCOPE will maintain “zero credibility” as long as it is controlled by the governor.
“Until we have a truly independent ethics body in Albany,” said spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, “there will be one set of rules for the governor and his buddies, and a different set of rules and laws for everyone else.”
And Cox called JCOPE a “subsidiary of Andrew Cuomo incapable of independently investigating wrongdoing and corruption inside the governor’s office.”
“Cuomo allowed Hoyt to resign quietly, praising his service when it later came out Hoyt was involved in an affair with a woman whom he paid hush money to and helped to get a state job,” he said.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the governor was not involved in the commission’s findings, while sources pointed to its definitive rulings against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez and sexual harassment charges he incurred several years ago.
“We were not a party to the investigation by JCOPE – a body made up of Democratic and Republican appointees from the Legislature and the Chamber – and read about its findings in the media,” Azzopardi said.
The commission last week found Hoyt had not abused his public position when he entered into a personal relationship with Lisa Marie Cater, while rejecting her claims that Hoyt had harassed and physically assaulted her or threatened her employment with the state.
“Her allegations are inconsistent with the documents collected by the commission,” Agata wrote in a letter to Hoyt. “Finally, there is forensic evidence establishing that some of the evidence she did provide to the commission was fabricated. Despite repeated attempts to communicate with Ms. Cater, including through her various attorneys, she has neither been forthcoming nor has she provided additional information to clarify inconsistencies in her allegations or to address the veracity of the comments that she produced.”
Hoyt resigned his position as regional president of Empire State Development Corp. on Oct. 30 right before Cater’s allegations became public. Cater later filed a federal lawsuit naming Hoyt and Cuomo, claiming the governor ignored or was slow to respond to her charges.
At first, state officials did not mention the charges when The News inquired about Hoyt’s status; and they praised his service in the Cuomo administration and in the Assembly, where a 2008 affair with an intern resulted in separate disciplinary action.
The federal lawsuit, meanwhile, remains active in Manhattan U.S. District Court with oral arguments connected with Hoyt’s motion for dismissal slated for July 18. Cater's attorney Paul Liggieri said Tuesday that even with the JCOPE ruling, her claims will continue to be pursued in court.
“As Ms. Cater’s attorney, I am confident that the Federal Court in the Southern District of New York will serve as a neutral forum for Ms. Cater to find justice,” he said. “Ms. Cater maintains the veracity of her claims as alleged in her federal complaint and we look forward to proceeding with the case in court.”
Still, the commission found the relationship between Hoyt and Cater was consensual.
In 2016, Cater, at times acting through an attorney, threatened to reveal their personal relationship unless Hoyt paid her $350,000, the commission found. Ultimately, Hoyt agreed to pay her $50,000 of his personal money in an attempt to keep their short-lived relationship under wraps.
The latest developments have prompted additional criticism of JCOPE as an inappropriate entity to investigate claims of sexual harassment. Common Cause NY, an Albany-based good government group, said in a statement the commission is not equipped or qualified to handle sexual harassment cases.
“The nearly all-male body can not credibly investigate or draw conclusions about what did and did not happen in the Hoyt case,” said Executive Director Susan Lerner. “Nor is the victim’s lack of cooperation an indication of guilt; more likely a lack of confidence in the process. Unfortunately, this leaves the public without a reliable resolution to this persistent problem.”
Molinaro said “it’s proven that Cuomo does not listen to women within his administration who are crying for help when it comes to sexual harassment.”
And Hitt, Nixon’s spokeswoman, said the ruling is “doubly devastating because it shows how little concern the governor has for ethics violations and for victims of sexual harassment.”
“The governor appointed someone with a history of sexual misconduct to a senior position in his administration,” she said. “When that person was accused of harassment again, he was sent to a board that is infamous for protecting Albany insiders rather than holding them accountable.”
Liggieri also joined in the criticism.
“It took a lot of courage for Ms. Cater to come forward and speak out against Mr. Hoyt’s actions,” he said. “Ms. Cater was standing up for her own rights as a female and as a victim of sexual harassment by coming forward to demand justice. Ms. Cater demanded that New York State officials be held accountable for their actions but those demands fell on deaf ears.”
Abbey Fashouer, Cuomo’s campaign spokeswoman, defended the governor’s efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment.
“The governor has fought for and delivered critical legislation to protect the rights of women everywhere – from nation-leading reforms to combat sexual harassment in the workplace to ending the horrific, exploitive practice of sextortion, to the landmark 'enough is enough' law, and taking firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers,” she said. “The governor will continue to take aggressive action to advance the rights and safety of women and girls, and ensure New York leads the way in creating opportunity for all.”