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Federal judge dismisses claims against Cuomo, state in Hoyt case

A federal judge in Manhattan has dismissed all claims against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York State by a Buffalo woman who said she was sexually harassed by local economic development chief Sam Hoyt, dealing another blow to the case and possibly quelling a fire storm torching the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

In a 30-page decision issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Sweet denied Lisa M. Cater’s assertion that Cuomo and his Empire State Development Corp. failed to prevent or properly respond to alleged sexual harassment when Hoyt served as the agency's local president. It follows a ruling earlier this month by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics that Hoyt had not abused his public position in a personal relationship with Cater, while rejecting her claims he had harassed and physically assaulted her or threatened her employment with the state.

Cater maintains other claims against Hoyt and the Empire State Development Corp., however, that have yet to be decided and are the subject of various motions before the court.

In Cater’s separate suit filed in federal court, Sweet found no evidence that Cuomo knew about claims against Hoyt.

“Plaintiff does not allege that the governor was personally aware of her complaints, that he was a direct participant in the acts complained of, or that he negligently or indifferently ignored them,” the judge said. “In the absence of personal involvement by the governor, or sufficient allegations of same, plaintiff’s ... claims fail.”

Cater alleged that Hoyt “sexually harassed and assaulted her” over a two-year period ending just before his resignation last October. Hoyt visited her home while not invited, she said, “forcefully asserted himself against her,” “unlawfully groped” and “kissed” her, and sent her “sexually harassing calls, texts, and emails, at least one of which included a nude photo of himself.”

Hoyt has denied that he sent a nude photo or that he groped Cater while meeting in LaSalle Park and contended the relationship never become sexual. Still, he acknowledged an inappropriate relationship and that he paid Cater $50,000 to ensure her silence and spare his family from embarrassment.

While it is not yet clear if Cater's attorney, Paul Liggieri, will appeal Sweet’s decision, Thursday’s developments could end the case. And while Liggieri earlier this month expressed confidence that the federal suit would end in his client’s favor despite the ethics commission ruling, Sweet made it clear that he found no merit in any of Cater’s 11 claims.

Sweet also found no evidence to support the claim that the governor issued an order or was aware of other Albany officials instructing Hoyt to “make this go away."

He also rejected Cater’s claims that Cuomo was liable as the state’s ultimate supervisor because of complaints she made by telephone, email and Facebook and her belief they would end up on the governor’s desk. He also denied the notion that Cuomo bore responsibility because he appointed Hoyt to his $157,000 post even though he had been disciplined for an inappropriate 2008 relationship with an intern while serving in the Assembly.

“There is no allegation, however, of any misconduct known to the governor involving defendant Hoyt in his current position, or, more generally, after the 2008 incident,” he ruled.

Sweet listed several other reasons for dismissing the claims of Cater, who told The Buffalo News last October that Hoyt had helped her find a job with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as an apartment. Hoyt, who is married, had said through his attorney that he regretted “a short-term, consensual relationship” with Cater and denied all allegations of harassment or threats.

He resigned from his state job in October and is now an Albany lobbyist.

Following the ethics commission's exoneration of Hoyt earlier this month, Cuomo opponents, including Democrat Cynthia Nixon and Republican Marc Molinaro, criticized the ruling and injected the situation into this year’s contest for governor.

Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, joined with others in slamming JCOPE as a creation of the governor.

“Make no mistake about it: JCOPE is a direct political appendage of Andrew Cuomo and its decision reeks of another whitewash,” Molinaro 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.”

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, there will be one set of rules for the governor and his buddies, and a different set of rules and laws for everyone else," said Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.

State Republican Chairman Edward F. 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’s campaign spokeswoman was unavailable for comment.

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