Note: This story has been updated in light the governor's announcement Tuesday that he would resign.
With or without sexual harassment and groping of subordinates in the mix, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has long been considered a bully. Little wonder that misconduct claims brought to light by the state attorney general last week, in a 168-page report, were greeted with more revulsion than astonishment.
Eleven women were identified by Attorney General Letitia James as being subjected to various inappropriate acts by the state’s top elected official, including unwanted kissing, butt and breast-grabbing, suggestive remarks, and other behaviors that might be interpreted as “creepy.” Another claim the report turned up was perhaps even more disturbing — that Cuomo tried to harm the reputation of one of his accusers, and he enlisted a Facebook employee to help him do it.
Dani Lever, a former communications director for Cuomo, had moved on to a similar role at the tech giant when she helped the governor disseminate damaging information about accuser Lindsey Boylan, the report alleges. Boylan, a former Cuomo staffer, tweeted in December 2020 that the governor had harassed her “for years.”
Just hours after the tweet, Cuomo’s communications team sent confidential personnel files on Boylan to several journalists, according to the New York Post. Lever coordinated with some of the reporters to let them know the documents were coming, and she also signed a statement for Cuomo disputing Boyland’s claim that he asked her to play strip poker with him on a private jet in 2017, the attorney general’s report alleges.
Lever apparently declined to sign a separate letter, drafted by Cuomo’s team, that attacked Boylan’s credibility by suggesting she had political motives for her claims, and called the missive “victim shaming.”
It’s unclear what Facebook’s position is on all of this. The company didn’t respond to our request for comment. It also didn’t respond to the New York Post, which first reported on the specifics involving Lever, and asked Facebook whether she had permission to work with the governor. (Lever also didn’t reply to a request for comment from us, and hasn’t commented elsewhere.) Suffice to say, though, that a powerful politician asking for favors from a highly-placed employee at the world’s largest social media platform is a bit discomforting.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have all been raked over the coals by federal lawmakers as of late over complaints about inconsistent policing of abusive comments and misinformation on their platforms. Conservatives, in particular, have grumbled that Big Tech firms treat them unfairly and display a liberal bias when deciding whether to suspend a user for violating policies. In an age when pulling the plug on a social media account can cost someone their livelihood, these are not trivial issues.
Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, has complained of such a bias. He was banned from social media platforms after posting messages that were seen as encouraging the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in wake of his election loss.
Although there are no allegations of Lever being asked to do anything having to do with Facebook for Cuomo, a Democrat, the governor’s long reach raises questions about how a political figure might be able to get a social media platform to do his or her bidding. Along with Lever, Cuomo pulled his brother, Chris Cuomo, a correspondent for CNN, into strategy talks about how to deal with the harassment allegations. That latter also presents ethical concerns.
Andrew Cuomo, whose father Mario was also governor, enjoyed a massive surge in popularity in the darkest stretch of the pandemic, when he held regular, lengthy briefings to update the public on the state’s response to the crisis. His approval started to fall, however, after reports that he hid data about COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, and then as the sexual harassment allegations started to come to light.
Despite a growing chorus of politicians, including President Joe Biden, and news organizations calling for him to resign (and criminal probes launched by four district attorneys), Cuomo previously refused to go. In a statement, Cuomo said he "never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances."
On Tuesday, he finally announced that he would step down in light of the allegations, although he stopped short of admitting wrongdoing. He will hand the reins to Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who will become the state's first female governor, for the remainder of his term.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican Congresswoman from New York, also tweeted that Facebook should fire Lever “immediately.”
“This is illegal professional retaliation against victims on behalf of a criminal sexual predator who committed federal and state crimes,” she tweeted.