New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has resigned, but his legal headaches are far from over.
Cuomo on Tuesday said he’d step down in 14 days after a damning report from the state’s attorney general documenting accusations of sexual harassment from nearly a dozen women. But he could still face civil suits and criminal charges stemming from those allegations.
Cuomo remains the subject of other serious investigations, including whether his office was involved in the underreporting of the state’s Covid-19 death toll in nursing homes and whether he misused state resources to write and promote a book about how he handled the pandemic.
Sexual harassment criminal and civil suits
New York state Attorney General Letitia James’ report on Cuomo details allegations of sexual harassment made by 11 women, nine of whom were state employees.
Any of the women who have already come forward with allegations, or anyone who may come forward in the future with allegations, has the right to file a civil suit against Cuomo for damages.
In addition, Cuomo remains the target of ongoing criminal probes, launched after James released her report.
Five district attorneys in the state have seized on details in James’ report — in Albany, Nassau, Oswego and Westchester counties, as well as in the borough of Manhattan — and are either investigating whether Cuomo violated any criminal statutes or have requested investigative materials from James’ office.
The most serious investigation, NBC News correspondent Tom Winter said Tuesday, was in Albany County, where Cuomo is accused of groping an executive assistant. The assistant filed a criminal complaint against Cuomo with the county sheriff’s office, a spokesperson for the sheriff told NBC News.
The staffer, Brittany Commisso, came forward publicly in an interview with CBS and the Times Union of Albany that was released Monday. If Cuomo were arrested and charged in connection with the accusation, he could be arrested. The most likely charge would be a Class A misdemeanor, Winter reported.
Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing and disputed many of the allegations against him.
Cevallos, meanwhile, noted that James’ report had not been subjected to the “crucible of cross-examination,” meaning that official criminal investigations, unlike James’ report, would be held to a much heavier degree of scrutiny that is necessary in the legal process.
“You may believe every word in the report,” Cevallos said. But “once it goes through the adversarial process and witnesses are cross-examined, that’s where you find out if this is a case prosecutors can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Nursing home scandal
Cuomo is also facing the fallout from a months-old probe into how his administration handled the recording of nursing home Covid-19 deaths.
In January, James’ office issued a report that found that the state health department had underreported the Covid-19 death toll in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent. A top Cuomo aide was then caught on tape telling Democratic legislators that the administration took months to release the full data about nursing home residents in part because of worries that the information was “going to be used against us” by the Trump administration.
The U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and the FBI began a preliminary investigation into how the Cuomo administration handled the data. The investigations are still open.
Cuomo was then accused in mid-February of having threatened to “destroy” a Democratic lawmaker who had alleged that the administration “covered up” the nursing home numbers. Cuomo has denied any cover-up.
Book writing questions
James’ office has been investigating whether the governor misused state resources to write and promote a book he published last October about his leadership during the height of the pandemic.
Cuomo was paid more than $5.1 million for the book — titled “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic” — a sum that far exceeds the $225,000-a-year salary he makes as governor, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy.
In April, the state comptroller’s office authorized the state attorney general to investigate whether Cuomo used staffers and state resources to assist in writing the book, which is prohibited by state law.
Cuomo has insisted that any work by state employees on the book was voluntary. A spokesman for Cuomo told NBC News in May that any work on the book was “in compliance with state ethics laws and done on their personal time.”
James said last week, during her news conference announcing the release of her office’s report on the sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, that the investigation into whether the governor used state resources to help him write the book was “ongoing.”
“The investigation, with respect to the book and whether or not public resources were utilized, is ongoing and it’s separate and apart from this investigation,” James said.
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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