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Cuomo accused of harassment, 'hostility' and 'dirty tricks' against woman while HUD chief

Cuomo told HUD's then-Inspector General Susan Gaffney that his top aides saw her as the "embodiment of evil," she told senators.

Published: March 1, 2021 7:02pm

Updated: March 2, 2021 9:32am

Two decades before being accused of misconduct against women while he was New York governor, a younger Andrew Cuomo was the subject of a sexual harassment complaint from a government official who claimed that Cuomo — serving at the time in Bill Clinton's cabinet — also hounded her with "a series of attacks and dirty tricks."

Susan Gaffney filed the 2000 complaint against Cuomo while he was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and she was the department's inspector general. 

In the complaint, which included other top HUD officials, Gaffney told the Office of Departmental Equal Employment Opportunity that she was sexually harassed and discriminated against in retaliation for her stance against fraud at HUD, and that Cuomo verbally abused her during weekend phone calls.

The complaint followed years of conflict between Gaffney and Cuomo, recounted in part during Gaffney's 1998 appearance before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. In her testimony, Gaffney described being targeted with whisper campaigns and accusations, and of being set up to look like a racist who discriminated against minorities.

The decades-old clash offers an early look at the management style of Cuomo, who currently is embroiled in two high-profile probes into his behavior while governor of New York. One Justice Department investigation centers on how Cuomo handled nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic; the other involves claims from women that he sexually harassed them. 

Current accusers and commentators have described the governor in terms such as "colossal a-hole" and "predatory." In late 1990s Washington, D.C., Gaffney portrayed Cuomo as a creative and determined adversary behind "a truly extraordinary series of events."

In her September 1998 testimony, Gaffney said Cuomo's "hostility" stemmed from an audit her office conducted into a program that fell under Cuomo's jurisdiction while he was assistant secretary at HUD. At that time, Gaffney said, Cuomo "heatedly disputed the authority of the OIG to raise certain questions, and strongly objected to what he saw as a lack of accountability on my part."

When Cuomo took the top slot at HUD, Gaffney said, her OIG continued to operate with the independence granted to inspectors general throughout the government — and continued to clash with Cuomo. 

"Not surprisingly, given the depth and pervasiveness of management problems at HUD, we have expressed reservations about the Secretary's ability to transform HUD in the radical manner and under the abbreviated timetable he has adopted," Gaffney testified. "The Secretary has characterized this as biased reporting and naysaying. His impatience with the independence of the OIG has led to a truly extraordinary series of events."

According to Gaffney, the events began when Cuomo said his office had received an anonymous letter alleging that Gaffney targeted Native Americans, Latinos, and African-Americans, and that OIG operations "were riddled with abuse."

These and other accusations were leaked anonymously to the Washington Post, Gaffney told senators, adding that she approached Cuomo over concerns that members of his staff had leaked the material. 

"He explained to me that his key aides saw me as the 'embodiment of evil,' and there was nothing he could do about that," Gaffney testified.

Elsewhere, she described talking to Cuomo about an anti-fraud initiative her office planned to launch in select American cities. Three cities that met the criteria for investigation had black mayors. Gaffney discussed with Cuomo whether investigating black-led cities would create a possible "perception problem," she testified, noting that Cuomo told her to pursue the inquiries.

After Gaffney launched the investigations, she said, Cuomo vilified her actions in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, telling the newspaper that cities with black Democrat mayors were unfairly targeted, and that the OIG actions were "either illegal or unethical," and should not be tolerated. 

Gaffney told senators that Cuomo's HUD later offered to settle a discrimination complaint against her in return for her resignation.

The conflict intensified in 2000, when Gaffney filed the harassment and discrimination charge. In the complaint, she alleged that Cuomo would call her at home on Saturday mornings to criticize her work, and that "baseless" damaging allegations were made about her.  

Gaffney retired in 2001, shortly after the government agreed to a $490,000 settlement with a black employee who accused her of racial discrimination.  

Just the News was not able to reach Gaffney for comment.

In response to a request from Just the News, Cuomo senior advisor Richard Azzopardi wrote in an email: "This was all fully reported at the time." He did not respond to a further request for fresh comments with the benefit of hindsight.

Cuomo on Sunday issued an apology related to the current sexual harassment allegations. 

"I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation," Cuomo wrote in a statement on the governor's website. "To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that."

The statement came as members of his own Democrat Party called for an independent investigation into Cuomo's alleged behavior.

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