For Powerful Men, #MeToo Is About Optics


Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly took ownership over the fall of former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has resigned and is facing multiple criminal investigations after the New Yorker published allegations of his physical abuse against women. Cuomo, whose office has historically navigated questions of sexual harassment, “empowerment,” and women’s equality with the grace and subtlety of a dump truck careening through a bike lane, appears to believe himself up for the job.

Schneiderman, a hypocrite in the most aggressive possible sense of the word, spent his career battling for progressive reform—though he often received more credit than he was due—and, more recently, lobbing a barrage of lawsuits at the Trump administration. The abusive and misogynistic behavior Schneiderman stands accused of—including choking, slapping, demeaning, and threatening women—does not appear to have deterred him from taking an unbearably ironic public stance as a feminist advocate, spearheading a lawsuit against the Weinstein Company, whose founder he called “despicable,” and even sponsoring legislation in the New York state Senate that criminalized strangulation. “The time to criminalize this horrific form of abuse is now,” Schneiderman said in 2010, describing the behavior he has now been accused of. (“In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity,” Schneiderman said last week in a statement. “I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”)

Almost immediately after the New Yorker published its account, Cuomo called for the resignation of his longtime rival. “My personal opinion is that, given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve as attorney general, and for the good of the office, he should resign,” he said in a statement last Monday night. He recruited a special prosecutor to investigate Schneiderman and sidelined Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, whose handling of a 2015 sexual assault allegation against Harvey Weinstein was being investigated by Schneiderman’s office, setting off a brief and very public sparring session between the two offices that the New York Daily News observed “smells potently like a play to bolster Cuomo’s standing with women’s groups.”

Vance and Cuomo then had a public reconciliation last week at a press conference on the Schneiderman probe, where, despite the subject matter, male reporters were apparently called on over women.

(“Multiple questions were asked and answered by female reporters,” Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever tweeted in response to these observations. “At times female reporters were shouting over other female reporters—and I fully support that!”)

It is, of course, more than appropriate for the governor of New York to assume a position of forceful leadership when the state attorney general is accused of heinous crimes. The thing is, despite Cuomo’s increasingly loud overtures to women, the governor’s office has not always appeared so moved when faced with lower-profile allegations against men in their camp. (Cuomo’s office did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)

In March of this year, the Times Union reported that allegations of sexual harassment, physical threats, ageism, and racism by Brian Gestring, a top official at the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, were found to be credible after an investigation by the inspector general—but instead of punishing Gestring and two other high-level staffers as the inspector general recommended, the agency transferred and demoted, respectively, two women who had cooperated with the investigation. One of the women, Gina Bianchi, had been an attorney with the DCJS for 24 years, with a “spotless and accomplished employment history”; Bianchi was subsequently forced to accept a position that paid $40,000 less. (The DCJS claimed to the Times Union, puzzlingly, to have undertaken their own investigation after the inspector general’s investigation, which then found the allegations against Gestring to be “unsubstantiated.”)

The governor’s office was notified of this in January, but they didn’t intervene, the Times Union reported.

(Following the story’s publication, Cuomo’s general counsel told the Times Union: “In December, once counsel’s office became aware of the allegations involving the attorney who believes she was unfairly demoted, we immediately directed GOER to commence a full and thorough investigation of the allegations. That investigation is active and ongoing.” The Times Union cited an email from the deputy inspector general to Bianchi that indicated the referral to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations had been made by the inspector general’s office, not the governor’s office. GOER has no investigative authority, the Times Union noted.)

Like most controversies involving the governor’s office, this story is endlessly complex. Gestring was fired less than a week after the Times Union report, but not for that—for a vulgar remark unrelated to the situation outlined above, the DCJS said. Both women indicated plans to sue the state. In March, the governor directed the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to investigate the matter, but in late April the Times Union reported that the people involved in the case had not yet been contacted.

Next up, there’s State Sen. Jeff Klein, another Cuomo ally, who was accused of forcibly kissing a staffer (he denied this). Cuomo twice called for an investigation of Klein without elaborating on who would handle such an investigation, the New York Times reported in January; Klein himself requested an investigation by, again, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state’s opaque and not-super-independent Cuomo-founded ethics oversight agency, and his lawyer told the Times that Klein was cooperating with them. Klein, however, remained on an all-male team of legislative leaders involved in crafting sexual harassment policy in March. (The bill that resulted, which Cuomo called “the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation,” was criticized for potentially allowing a narrow interpretation of sexual harassment; a group of women who have publicly accused lawmakers of sexual harassment called the legislation “ill-conceived and incomplete.” State Sen. Liz Kreuger called it “a really good try.”)

The Gestring debacle is not the only time the governor’s office has been accused of turning its back on sexual harassment allegations. Last fall, a few weeks after Cuomo finally agreed to return donations he’d received from Harvey Weinstein, former State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt resigned from his position as head of the state’s economic development agency while being investigated for sexual harassment allegations—though at the time of his departure Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul praised him as “a strong voice for the community.” Hoyt was brought on by Cuomo in 2011 despite having been disciplined three years earlier by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (more on him later) for having an affair with a 23-year-old intern.

Hoyt, who is married, was revealed to have paid the woman, former state employee Lisa Marie Cater, $50,000 in exchange for her silence. In November, Cater sued Hoyt along with the state of New York and Cuomo. Cater, a domestic abuse survivor, told the Buffalo News that she and Hoyt initially shared a “flirty” relationship and kissed a few times after he helped find her a job at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but alleges that he then harassed, threatened, assaulted, and retaliated against her. (Hoyt said the relationship was “wrong and something I regret,” but denied Cater’s allegations, claiming that the relationship with Cater was consensual and that she threatened him when he tried to end it; he said a settlement was paid to “to avoid public embarrassment” to his family).

In the lawsuit, Cater claims that her repeated complaints were “willfully” ignored by the governor’s office. (“All state employees must act with integrity and respect. When the complainant made these allegations, they were immediately referred to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations for an investigation,” Cuomo press secretary told the Buffalo News, citing two subsequent investigations. “The IG conducted its own investigation, during which repeated attempts to interview the complainant were unsuccessful and the matter was referred to JCOPE for investigation. With the investigation still pending, Mr. Hoyt separated from state service.” Following the lawsuit, Cuomo chief counsel Alphonso David told the Daily News: “The facts alleged in this complaint regarding Mr. Hoyt were not provided to state investigators and in many cases contradict the public allegations made in the last several weeks.”)

“I think what [Hoyt] did was wrong, but I don’t think it was a mistake to hire him,” Cuomo told reporters in December. When further pressed on what the Cuomo administration will do differently following the Hoyt allegations, Cuomo accused a female reporter of doing “a disservice to women” by focusing only on state government. “It’s not government, it’s society,” he asserted. (The reporter said Cuomo later called her to apologize.)

Now, back to Sheldon Silver, another fallen ally of Cuomo’s. Silver, who was recently re-convicted on federal corruption charges, signed off on a secret publicly-funded settlement in 2012 to two women who accused then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez of physical and verbal harassment. Silver later apologized for breaking committee rules by not referring the cases to the ethics committee. (Silver was also accused of sweeping rape allegations against an aide under the rug in 2001; the aide was later arrested and plead guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault after being accused by another staffer.) In 2012, Cuomo called for an ethics investigation into the harassment claims, but disputed the use of phrase “secret deal,” later noting that the settlement had been reviewed—if not by the public, per se—by the state comptroller and, yes, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. (The sexual harassment legislation passed in March bans forced arbitration and most nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment complaints, and requires government employees to refund taxpayer-funded settlements if found responsible.)

“Will you ever stop people from doing venal, stupid, criminal, illegal acts? No. Not in government. Not in politics. Not in the military. … This is prevalent through society,” Cuomo told WCNY in 2013, in a now-familiar deflection. “Is the governor to blame for Vito Lopez’s sexual harassment? No,” he said.

In October, as the Washington Post recently noted, Samantha Bee was inspired to frame Schneiderman as a Trump-resisting superhero with a series of “Schneider-Man” comics (she has since demanded he take them off his Twitter page). “With great power comes great responsibility,” Schneiderman quipped on the show. Now, amidst loud condemnation from leaders like Cuomo, the better image might be this meme of two men in Spiderman costumes pointing at each other—or, better yet, a hellish and infinite spiral of men in Spiderman costumes pointing at each other. If you’ve succeeded in wading through this messy history to the end, you could be forgiven for concluding that, for some powerful men, the forced policing of the misogyny and abuse of other powerful men is simply a new pit stop in an endless, convoluted, hopelessly hypocritical power-grabbing loop.

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