Anna Ruch had never met Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo before encountering him at a crowded New York City wedding reception in September 2019. Her first impression was positive enough.
The governor was working the room after toasting the newlyweds, and when he came upon Ruch, now 33, she thanked him for his kind words about her friends. But what happened next instantly unsettled her: Cuomo put his hand on Ruch’s bare lower back, she said in an interview Monday.
When she removed his hand with her own, Ruch recalled, the governor remarked that she seemed “aggressive” and placed his hands on her cheeks. He asked if he could kiss her, loudly enough for a friend standing nearby to hear. Ruch was bewildered by the entreaty, she said, and pulled away as the governor drew closer.
“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” said Ruch, whose recollection was corroborated by the friend, contemporaneous text messages and photographs from the event. “I turned my head away and didn’t have words in that moment.”
Ruch’s account comes after two former aides accused Cuomo of sexual harassment in the workplace, plunging his third term into turmoil as the governor’s defenders and Cuomo himself strain to explain his behavior.
A spokesperson for the governor did not directly address Ruch’s account, referring to a general statement that Cuomo released Sunday night in which he acknowledged that some things he has said “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
“To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that,” the statement said.
Ruch’s example is distinct from those of the former aides: A former member of the Obama administration and the 2020 Biden campaign, Ruch has never been employed by the governor or the state. But her experience reinforces the escalating concerns and accusations about Cuomo’s personal conduct — a pattern of words and actions that have, at minimum, made three women who are decades his junior feel deeply uncomfortable, in their collective telling.
Exactly a year after the state’s first confirmed coronavirus case — the dawn of a crisis that eventually propelled Cuomo to national Democratic stardom — the governor was silent Monday, even as the fallout continued to shadow his beleaguered administration.
His accusers were not quiet, however: Charlotte Bennett, a former aide who accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, issued her first public statement since outlining her claims in a New York Times article, saying that the apology and attempted explanation issued by the governor Sunday night was woefully inadequate.
“These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood,” Bennett wrote. “They are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice.”
Bennett also called on other women, if they had similar stories about Cuomo, to come forward. “If you choose to speak your truth, we will be standing with you,” she said. “I promise.”
At the same time, the initial stages of a pending investigation into Cuomo’s actions were underway inside the offices of the state attorney general, Letitia James, who was evaluating options for an outside investigator.
In the statement released Sunday evening, Cuomo addressed his behavior, including “some of my past interactions with people in the office,” saying that he had often teased and bantered with his underlings, “being playful” in what he called “a very serious business.”
That, he suggested, had been misconstrued.
“I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended,” he said.
A lawyer for Bennett, Debra S. Katz, cast doubt on the governor’s initial suggestion, released in a statement Saturday night, that his relationship to Bennett was of a mentor to his employee, nearly four decades his junior.
“He was not acting as a mentor, and his remarks were not misunderstood by Ms. Bennett,” said Katz, who specializes in harassment and employment discrimination and represented Christine Blasey Ford in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“He was abusing his power over her for sex,” Katz said. “This is textbook sexual harassment.”
Indeed, on Monday, Cuomo’s contrition — a rarity in his decadelong tenure — was rejected by some other New York Democrats, including Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, who said the governor’s statement was “not an apology.”
“He seemed to be saying, ‘Aw, I was just kidding around,’” de Blasio said. “Sexual harassment isn’t funny. It’s serious and it has to be taken seriously.”
The political woes of Cuomo — already under fire for his handling of nursing homes in the pandemic and his abrasive approach to governance — deepened last week when Lindsey Boylan, a former top economic development official, posted a lengthy essay outlining a workplace environment where “sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected.”
She described a series of uncomfortable interactions with Cuomo, including an unsolicited kiss in 2018, which the governor has strenuously denied.
Then, on Saturday, Bennett recalled her own encounters with Cuomo last spring, when she said the governor asked her probing personal questions, including whether she had slept with older men, whether she was monogamous, and whether she thought age mattered in relationships. Bennett is 25; the governor is 63.
The interactions, which Bennett described in a series of interviews with The Times, left her certain that the governor was suggesting a sexual relationship.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me,” Bennett told The Times, saying she felt scared and upset. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it.”
For Ruch, the circumstances were different, her exchange with the governor taking place at a well-attended celebration far from any official setting. In fact, the episode’s highly visible nature made it all the more jarring, she suggested. She recalled Cuomo moving his hand to the small of her back — exposed in an open-back dress — within moments of their being introduced and shaking hands at the reception.
Ruch said that touch, on her bare skin, discomfited her. “I promptly removed his hand with my hand, which I would have thought was a clear enough indicator that I was not wanting him to touch me,” she said.
Instead, Ruch said, Cuomo called her “aggressive” and placed his hands on her cheeks.
“He said, ‘Can I kiss you?’ ” Ruch said. “I felt so uncomfortable and embarrassed when really he is the one who should have been embarrassed.” (A friend captured the exchange in a series of photographs taken on Ruch’s cellphone.)
Shaken, Ruch said, she later had to ask a friend if Cuomo’s lips had made contact with her face as she pulled away. The governor had kissed her cheek, she was told.
“It’s the act of impunity that strikes me,” Ruch said. “I didn’t have a choice in that matter. I didn’t have a choice in his physical dominance over me at that moment. And that’s what infuriates me. And even with what I could do, removing his hand from my lower back, even doing that was not clear enough.”
Unnerved and baffled, Ruch said, she posed for a photograph with Cuomo afterward. Once the governor walked away, Ruch’s friend approached her with a look of alarm.
“It was when my friend looked at me and said, ‘Are you OK?’ with such genuine concern in her face that I realized how obviously inappropriate it was,” Ruch said, “not only to me but to those around me as well.”
In a text message a day or so later, Ruch wrote to the friend, “I’m so pissed,” referring to the governor as “this guy,” with an epithet in that description.
After collecting herself later that night, Ruch said, she had hoped to speak with the governor before he left the reception and confront him about his behavior.
But by then, she said, she could not find him.
“I would have rather just said it that night,” she said. “I wanted to say, ‘That wasn’t OK.’ ”