By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's office cleared the way on Sunday for an independent attorney with subpoena powers to investigate allegations against him of sexual misconduct.
The governor's office backtracked on its original plan to choose its own investigator after widespread criticism from fellow Democrats.
"We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation," New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.
Cuomo, one of the nation's most well-known Democratic politicians whose popularity soared during the early months of the pandemic, has been accused by two former aides of sexual misconduct, sparking criticism from fellow Democrats that ranged from calls for his resignation to appeals for an independent investigation into his behavior.
Responding to the latest allegations that emerged on Saturday, the governor denied making any sexual advances and initially ordered what he said would be a "full and thorough outside review" led by a former federal judge, Barbara Jones.
But following sharp rebukes from Democrats, Cuomo reversed that decision - and issued a statement late on Sunday saying he "never intended to offend anyone or cause harm."
Cuomo said he is often jocular around the office and in public, citing his frequent press conferences that included plenty of banter with members of the media.
"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," Cuomo said in a statement.
'PAINFUL TO READ'
Cuomo on Saturday ordered what he said would be a "full and thorough outside review" led by Jones. But that move was quickly rejected by leading Democratic figures including U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who said she found the accounts of Cuomo's former aides Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett "extremely serious and painful to read."
There were also demands for an independent probe from several other Democrats. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told CNN's State of the Union that President Joe Biden supported such an investigation. Others, including New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, went further, echoing Republican calls for Cuomo to resign.
In the latest misconduct allegations, Bennett, who worked for the governor as an executive assistant and policy advisor for nearly two years until November 2020, told the New York Times that he had asked her about her sex life, including whether she was monogamous in her relationships and if she had ever had sex with older men.
Her account was published days after Boylan, another former aide, wrote in an online essay that the governor made several "inappropriate gestures" toward her while she worked for the state government from 2015 to 2018, including sending her a rose on Valentine's Day and kissing her on the mouth.
Cuomo has denied wrongdoing in both cases. Reuters could not independently verify the women's accounts. Attempts to reach both women have been unsuccessful.
Cuomo rose to national prominence for his daily televised briefings early on during the coronavirus pandemic, when New York was the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States.
The allegations of sexual misconduct follow a report issued in January by James' office that cast doubt on his administration's handling of the coronavirus crisis in nursing homes. It said the state health department significantly undercounted the death toll and implemented policies that may have contributed to it.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday that there now needed to be two independent investigations, one into Cuomo's conduct and another into the nursing home deaths.
"Questions of this magnitude cannot hang over the heads of New Yorkers as we fight off a pandemic and economic crisis," de Blasio said in a statement.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Wallis)