By MARINA VILLENEUVE and MICHAEL HILL Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A judge on Friday dismissed the only criminal charge filed against former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in connection with the sexual harassment allegations that drove him from office.
The move was expected after Albany County prosecutors said they couldn’t prove the case and wanted to drop it, and Cuomo’s lawyers asked the court to agree.
Cuomo, a Democrat who denied the allegation, didn’t speak during Friday’s virtual hearing, which lasted just a few minutes. Wearing a black mask, he was briefly visible on the videoconference as a defense attorney moved her camera slightly to show him in the room.
“We have reviewed all of the available evidence and concluded we cannot successfully secure a conviction in this case,” assistant district attorney Jennifer McCanney said.
Judge Holly Trexler said she was “acutely aware of the fact that the district attorney’s office has unfettered discretion to determine whether to prosecute a particular person or case.”
The dismissal of the charge, which accused Cuomo of groping an aide in the executive mansion in 2020, removes what had been seen as the most serious legal threat to the former governor. He said he never touched anyone inappropriately.
He could still face lawsuits over his conduct if his accusers choose to take him to court.
The misdemeanor complaint was filed by the local sheriff in October, two months after Cuomo resigned from office.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares told Trexler this week that although the aide was credible, and some evidence supported her account, he believed he couldn’t win a conviction in court.
The charges against Cuomo were based on allegations by Brittany Commisso, who said Cuomo slid his hand up her blouse and grabbed her breast when they were alone in an office at the mansion.
Her testimony was among the most damning in a report released in August by Democratic state Attorney General Letitia James that concluded Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women.
Cuomo resigned that month. He has called the report unfair and has vehemently denied the groping allegation.
Soares has said he was caught by surprise when Sheriff Craig Apple, a fellow Democrat, filed the forcible touching complaint without consulting the prosecutor’s office. Soares called it “potentially defective” and moved to delay Cuomo’s arraignment, originally set for November.
In a letter to Trexler on Tuesday, Soares said “statutory elements of New York law make this case impossible to prove.” He added that multiple government inquiries into Cuomo’s conduct had created “technical and procedural hurdles” regarding prosecutors’ obligations to disclose evidence to the defense.
Some legal experts said Soares’ decision illustrated the difficulties of prosecuting sex crime allegations. But others said he should have proceeded if he considered the accuser credible.
Commisso was among the critics.
“My disappointing experience of re-victimization with the failure to prosecute a serial sexual abuser, no matter what degree the crime committed, yet again sadly highlights the reason victims are afraid to come forward, especially against people in power,” Commisso said in a statement to the Times Union of Albany.
The Associated Press doesn’t identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they decide to tell their stories publicly, as Commisso has done in interviews.
Soares, in a radio interview Friday, noted that the attorney general’s inquiry didn’t have the same legal requirements as a criminal case, and he said prosecutors can’t be swayed by public sentiment or “passions.”
“It’s not for me to engage in any kind of debate with those who aren’t equipped with as much information or the obligations that I have. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but there’s only one person with a burden of proof, and that’s me,” he told the WAMC/Northeast Public Radio network.
“I think the more dangerous position is to have a person in my position who will move forward, press forward, with cases because of fear of public backlash,” he added.
Two prosecutors in the New York City suburbs separately announced last month that Cuomo would not face charges for allegations involving other women who said they had been subjected to unwanted kisses or touches.