When Lindsey Boylan was growing up in San Diego, there was a local bully with a particularly cruel party trick.
He would insist all the neighbourhood kids came over to his house to watch him feed a live mouse to his pet snake. Just before throwing the mouse into the tank, the bully would thwack its head against the wall to stun it. “And then it’s disoriented. That is what it felt like as a woman [like me] who the governor found attractive working for him.”
The office culture was paralysing in its abusiveness, says Ms Boylan. And then there was Governor Cuomo, the snake, “you would never know when you were about to be eaten alive”, she said, metaphorically.
Between 2015 and 2018, Ms Boylan worked for Mr Cuomo first as Chief of Staff for Empire State Development, an organisation focused on the economic growth of the New York State, and then Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Special Adviser to the Governor. She resigned in 2018: “I had had enough, the dynamics got more and more toxic for me.”
In December 2020, two months into Ms Boylan’s own political campaign for Manhattan Borough President (she also ran for US Congress in 2019), Mr Cuomo’s name was released as a possible candidate for Attorney General under President Biden. The news of her former boss possibly becoming the most powerful lawmaker in the country prompted Ms Boylan to post a series of tweets, effectively “dropping a nuclear bomb on my career and life”, she says.
On 13 December, she was in the car with her husband and six-year-old daughter.
“I kept seeing his name on Twitter feeds floated as a possible candidate for AG and it had reached fever pitch. I instantly started typing my reaction.”
She wrote: “Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched. I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks. Or would it be both in the same conversation? This was the way for years.”
The fall-out from those tweets would extend far beyond Ms Boylan’s own world. After a second woman, Charlotte Bennett, came forward, New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James launched an enquiry into the allegations. Ms Boylan was interviewed multiple times and gave hours of under-oath testimony to both the Attorney General’s attorneys and the State Assembly investigators.
The 165-page report was released on 3 August. The investigation found: “The Governor sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and non-consensual touching, as well as making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women.” It would ultimately lead to Mr Cuomo’s resignation, ending his 10-year run as governor, bringing down one of the most prominent Democrats in America, and devastating a family political legacy that stretched over almost 50 years.
The report detailed the sexual harassment of 11 women and an office culture of toxicity, in which loyalty to the governor was valued over the most basic ethics. It describes a “culture of fear, intimidation, and retribution” which ran hand in hand with one “that accepted and normalised everyday flirtations and gender-based comments by the Governor.” One woman called the office environment, “the twilight zone… the typical rules did not apply.”
On 23 August, Andrew Cuomo resigned. In a recorded 21-minute speech, Mr Cuomo said of the James report: “I’m a fighter and my instinct is to fight through this controversy because I truly believe it is politically motivated. I believe that it is unfair and it is untruthful.” Mr Cuomo has consistently denied the allegations of intentional sexual harassment and assault.
Ms Boylan had long hoped to be a change-maker in the Democratic party, but never this way.
Born to a first-generation American, her family, which originated in Ireland, is dominated by women. Her grandmother and aunt lived with the family growing up and her mother had her sister at 16.
“When I talk about knowing stories of women that have not turned out well, they’re in my family. And revolving around, in my view, a society that didn’t provide them with the tools they needed to succeed. I always had this feeling – and it’s why I went into government – that while I can’t fix this, I’m going to make myself the most skilled, the most talented, so I can be in a position to change things.”
Since high school Ms Boylan was fascinated by politics, particularly Hillary Clinton who had entered the Senate in 2001.
“Clinton had been a newly-minted senator and there was this whole move of women into the Senate. And I said, ‘Well, these women are doing things. I don’t have women in my family who’ve been able to be out and be loud and powerful. So, okay, this Hillary Clinton, well, where’d she go to school?’ And she went to Wellesley.”
Ms Boylan followed and studied political theory at the university before obtaining an MBA at Columbia.
She became the first woman hired at a small urban planning company in New York and then worked for the improvement and development of Bryant Park, known as the town square of Manhattan.
“I oversaw all the state’s recovery work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. I oversaw the Office of Storm Recovery, which continues to administer funds post [Hurricane] Sandy. So, I was getting to deal with the big and urgent challenges of the climate crisis, of inequality. I was getting to do the really big work, which made it very hard to leave.
“It’s unjust that women are put in this situation. It’s actually kind of humiliating, because it in some ways made me feel diminished in terms of my value: my ability to do this work was in many ways connected to serving at the pleasure of this governor.”
At the same time, she says she was dealing with being inappropriately touched, on the back, legs and arms, and once, forcibly kissed on the mouth. She claims the governor asked her to play strip poker with him on a private plane home from western New York. When his dog jumped up on Ms Boylan, she says Mr Cuomo said he would like to “mount her” too. He denies all these claims.
At a holiday party, Mr Cuomo had a staffer escort Ms Boylan out of the event to his private office for a one-on-one meeting, where he mused on the cigar box there given to him by President Bill Clinton. She says the interaction left her truly frightened. His attorney asserted that it was a normal tour, not “intended to make Ms Boylan uncomfortable” or “give any impression that he was romantically interested”.
Ms Boylan says she knew there had to be other women with similar stories to hers but had little expectation that anyone else would come forward.
In the weeks afterward, Mr Cuomo and his team worked to counter Ms Boylan’s allegations – a campaign the James report would later describe as “unlawful retaliation”.
In one published audio recording referenced in Letitia James’s report, Melissa DeRosa, Mr Cuomo’s chief of staff, is heard trying to send Ms Boylan’s personnel file to two journalists at Albany’s Times Union newspaper – the file allegedly showed Ms Boylan had been difficult to work for. It contained anonymous allegations of her bullying staff. In response to their questions about the rumours of sexual harassment and grooming of women in the governor’s office, Ms DeRosa asks: “Am I Ghislaine Maxwell in this situation?” Ms DeRosa resigned on 9 August.
Ms DeRosa denies sending the file.
“With respect to legal questions relating to how a complaint should be handled, or whether personnel records could be provided to the public, Ms DeRosa consulted with and relied upon advice of experienced counsel,” her attorney Sean Hecker told The Independent.
On the mention of Ghislaine Maxwell, her spokesperson Rich Azzopardi says: “She was responding to nasty and unfair tweets about her from mainly Republican operatives when the allegations first came to light.”
“The shocking thing is that this was all out in the open,” Ms Boylan now says. “How much power and intimidation did Cuomo have to manifest in order for no one to say ‘no’ to smearing me?”
“What was I going to do, say, ‘Please join me in being destroyed?’ You cannot force people to put themselves through hell.”
Yet, one by one Mr Cuomo’s accusers did just that. It’s entirely fitting, Ms Boylan says, that Mr Cuomo’s downfall was brought about by the collective bravery of a group of women he consistently intimidated. “Him underestimating absolutely all of us was part of his abuse,” she says. “And it was part of his undoing.”
At the time Ms Boylan stepped forward, Mr Cuomo’s daily, televised Covid briefings from New York earned him the nickname “America’s Governor”.
He was enjoying unprecedented popularity and adulation. He would appear on his brother Chris Cuomo’s CNN news show to talk about his handling of the pandemic, where Chris and Andrew would josh around live on air, with incongruous bonhomie. Mr Cuomo signed a $5million book deal to write a memoir, published in October 2020, called American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
But through all of this, the fact Andrew Cuomo was a bully was never a secret, says Ms Boylan. He allegedly revelled in his role as a tough guy: prone to explosions and screaming fits.
“The screaming and yelling wasn’t the worst thing,” says Ms Boylan. “Him abusing me verbally and anyone [else] was so commonplace. It was just in the oxygen when he was unhappy. But things like me being sat in a location at an event so that he could see me. The fear of knowing that all of these systems behind the scenes had been deployed to focus on you… That was the scariest thing.”
The reckoning for those in Mr Cuomo’s circle is still playing out. It involves not only loyalists to the former governor who worked in his office, but external advisers, brought in to help the governor’s response to the harassment claims.
They included Time’s Up, a national group formed by Hollywood women in 2018, focused on stopping sexual harassment and promoting gender equality. The two leaders of Time’s Up, Roberta Kaplan and Tina Chen, and the entire board of Time’s Up have all now resigned.
The James report showed they had been advising Mr Cuomo and his team’s response to Ms Boylan’s allegations, and overseeing an op-ed Mr Cuomo wrote, which was ultimately never published. Alphonso David, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBTQ+ advocacy group was also named. He was fired on 6 September.
Ms Boylan says the involvement of Time’s Up in the effort to undermine her is what still hurts the most.
“It’s just heartbreaking… it’s heartbreaking. That to me will, for the rest of my life, be the most painful thing,” she says.
“This has been the most difficult experience of my life. This kind of experience, especially when it gets so much coverage, becomes overwhelming in nature. It’s felt like hell at times over the last year, for sure.”
Paparazzi have camped outside her home on several occasions. She has been photographed while with her daughter. She still receives unnerving mail at her house – one man asking her to sign headshots of her and Mr Cuomo. She gets letters she describes as “creepy conspiracy theories”. She is harassed daily on Twitter.
A month prior to coming forward, Ms Boylan suffered a miscarriage. “I certainly feel that [the stress] was part of it.
“The perfect manifestation of this experience was like having to see a miscarriage through, truly. I knew this was going to be terrible, I knew it would end terribly. I experienced this monstrous environment, and I knew what they did to people. They tried to cast me as politically motivated from the beginning: that I was doing this for my campaign. How could accusing the most powerful governor in the country, one of the most popular, if not the most popular Democrat in the country at the time, of harassment and abuse, how could that help me?
“There are many systems that try to make me feel like I made a mortal mistake in speaking the truth: that continue to victimise women, or to truncate us, or to put me on the ground to draw a chalk line around my body. That needs to change for future women.”
Ms Boylan says she is not finished holding others accountable. That includes the ex-governor’s journalist brother Chris Cuomo who returned to his nightly live news show on CNN after a week’s hiatus. He blamed commitment to his family for helping his brother: “I tried to be there for my brother,” Chris Cuomo told his viewers. “I’m not an adviser. I’m a brother. I wasn’t in control of anything. I was there to listen and offer my take.”
Ms Boylan says his explanation is not good enough. “I think someone who will pump up his brother in the height of the pandemic – like it’s some personal show – the level of privilege that that shows for both of them speaks for itself.
“I love my family but I would never advise my family members to harm others. That’s not right. And for him to say that that is [not] what he was doing is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. And it shows what he thinks about himself versus everyone else. It shows a level of privilege and disrespect for women.
“He says, ‘It’s all about family.’ I think it’s also about his own way of life. And if his brother can be felled by this, if society is no longer going to accept what his brother’s doing, then maybe they’re not going to accept how Chris Cuomo is.”
CNN said in a response, that Chris Cuomo had addressed his involvement with his viewers, saying: “I never attacked nor encouraged anyone to attack any woman who came forward. I never made calls to the press about my brother’s situation. I never influenced or attempted to control CNN’s coverage of my family.”
In June, Ms Boylan conceded her race for borough president. She says she is now instructing lawyers to sue but is also trying to move on with her life.
“What I will focus future legal action on is the retaliation,” says Ms Boylan. “Because that is how I can affect the most change. I want to focus on accountability. There’s been some accountability, [but] not nearly enough, not for me and not nearly enough for too many women. The retaliation is what prevents women from coming forward because they’re going to remember that I was smeared.”
“Right now, I want to spend a little bit of time processing. When you have a traumatic experience, like the whole experience has been, it robs you of the presence of mind to be in wonderful experiences. So I will spend time just being present with my daughter in a way that she deserves. And then I’ll fight again because that’s what we have to do.”
This article was amended on 8 July 2022 to include Ms DeRosa’s position that she did not send the file to the Times Union.