NEW YORK, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Faced with mounting legal pressures and demands for his departure from President Joe Biden and others, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned on Tuesday following an inquiry that found he sexually harassed 11 women, capping a startling downfall for one of the most prominent politicians in the United States.
A Democrat who had served since 2011 as governor of the fourth most-populous state, Cuomo made the announcement a week after New York Attorney General Letitia James released the results of a five-month independent investigation that concluded he had engaged in conduct that violated U.S. and state laws.
In a televised, 20-minute address, Cuomo, 63, said his resignation would take effect in 14 days, derailing a long political career that once appeared headed for a possible U.S. presidential campaign.
Cuomo again denied any wrongdoing, though he said he accepted "full responsibility" for what he characterized as ill-conceived attempts to be affectionate or humorous.
He said he had concluded that fighting the accusations while remaining in office would paralyze state government and cost taxpayers millions of dollars at a time when the coronavirus pandemic still poses a major threat.
"I think, given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to government - and therefore that's what I'll do," he said.
Cuomo's resignation spared him from possible removal from office through impeachment proceedings in the Democratic-controlled state legislature, which appeared overwhelmingly likely as lawmakers abandoned him in droves.
The investigation, detailed in a 168-page report, found that Cuomo groped, kissed or made suggestive comments to women including current and former government workers - one a state trooper - and retaliated against at least one woman who accused him of sexual misconduct.
Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, 62 and a Democrat from western New York, will take over as governor of the state of more than 19 million people until the end of Cuomo's term in December 2022 as outlined in the state constitution, becoming the first woman to hold the post.
"I agree with Governor Cuomo's decision to step down," Hochul said in a statement. "It is the right thing to do and in the best interest of New Yorkers."
Cuomo is the latest New York politician to leave in scandal. Eliot Spitzer quit as governor in 2008 over his patronage of prostitutes. The man who succeeded him, David Paterson, aborted his 2010 re-election campaign facing allegations of witness tampering and other offenses. U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 in a sexting scandal. In 2018, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned after four women accused him of abuse.
Cuomo also became the latest powerful man taken down in recent years following the rise of the #MeToo social movement against sexual abuse and harassment that has shaken politics, Hollywood, the business world and the workplace.
Lindsay Boylan, a former aide who was the first woman to accuse Cuomo publicly last December, wrote on Twitter that Cuomo had remained "abusive" until the end by attacking his victims.
"My hope always has been that this will make it safer for other women to report their own harassment and abuse," she wrote.
Cuomo was elected to three four-year terms as governor, as was his late father, Mario Cuomo. He previously served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1997 to 2001 under then-President Bill Clinton.
Like his father, Andrew Cuomo never ran for president despite speculation about his possible ambitions. He was hailed as a national leader last year early in the COVID-19 pandemic after delivering daily news conferences as his state became the U.S. epicenter of the public health crisis.
The attorney general's civil investigation found that the actions of Cuomo and his senior advisers violated multiple state and federal laws, but James did not pursue criminal charges.
Local prosecutors in Manhattan, Nassau County, Albany County and Westchester County, however, said after the report's release that they were looking into the matter and requested evidence from the independent inquiry.
Last week, one of Cuomo's accusers, Brittany Commisso, filed a criminal report with the Albany County Sheriff's Office, alleging the governor groped her breast at the Executive Mansion in Albany last November. The sheriff told reporters his office would conduct a thorough investigation.
Cuomo had for months denied escalating accusations of sexual harassment - and renewed those denials after the investigative report was issued. But what was left of his political support crumbled after the findings were made public. Hours later, Biden, a longtime friend, said he believed Cuomo should resign.
Other prominent Democrats including the state's two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi also lined up in calling on Cuomo to step down.
"I respect the governor's decision," Biden told reporters on Tuesday at the White House.
Investigators concluded that Cuomo and his aides created a "toxic" and "hostile" workplace in an office gripped by bullying, fear and intimidation.
In a statement, James said Cuomo's resignation "closes a sad chapter for all of New York, but it's an important step toward justice."
Cuomo last year appeared to be a politician in ascent, presenting himself as an authoritative figure in televised news conferences on the pandemic. His image was burnished by television interviews with his younger brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo.
In Tuesday's address, Cuomo flatly denied sexually harassing anyone and called the most serious allegations false. But he acknowledged that some of his behavior - including giving hugs and kisses, calling women "honey" and clumsy attempts at humor - may have made some women feel uncomfortable.
"In my mind, I've never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn't realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn," he said. "There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn't fully appreciate."
He also addressed his three daughters.
"I want them to know from the bottom of my heart that I never did, and I never would, intentionally disrespect a woman," he said. "Your dad made mistakes, and he apologized, and he learned from them."
Cuomo's address immediately followed a briefing from his lawyer, Rita Glavin, who sat at a table underneath the seal of the governor's office and sought to deliver a point-by-point rebuttal of each woman's allegations.
Cuomo's abrupt departure also scrambles next year's gubernatorial race, in which he had been widely viewed as the front-runner before the scandal erupted. Among Democrats, Hochul could run for a full term as the incumbent; James has also been touted as a potential candidate, following in the footsteps of both Spitzer and Cuomo, who went from attorney general to the governorship.
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