ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — As of Monday, five women have come forward against Gov. Andrew Cuomo with accusations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior.
One of those women is Ana Liss, a former Cuomo aide and current Monroe County employee.
Liss, 35, was a policy and operations aide in the Cuomo administration for two years. She first joined in 2013 as part of a fellowship and left in 2015. Liss now works for Monroe County as the director of planning and development.
In a weekend interview with the Wall Street Journal Liss said the governor “asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk.” The report notes that she originally believed her interactions with the governor were “harmless fun” and later found his actions patronizing.
Liss sat down with News 8 anchor Adam Chodak for an interview Monday. She said she was unsure whether Cuomo’s actions towards her amount to sexual harassment, be she does describe it as inappropriate. She says her story, including those of other women who have come forward show a pattern — and that’s what she’s trying to expose.
Adam Chodak: What brought you to Albany?
Ana Liss: I was selected to be an Empire State Fellow, it was the second cohort. The governor had established a fellowship program modeled on the presidential management program that’s in existence in D.C. to attract young talent.
In my program you had to have a handful of years experience in the workforce and a Master’s degree, write essays, do multiple rounds of interviews, get letters of recommendation. My cohort was a little over dozen people and were assigned to different areas of state government and I was placed in the governor’s office to work on economic development programs.
AC: How closely did you two interact
AL: We only interacted closely when he was in Albany because my office was adjacent to his office and he would come through to talk to me and some other folks in my suite, but he never interacted with me in any meaningful way professionally.
AC: What interactions stand out?
AL: When I was first in his presence, he shook my hand and asked me questions and was friendly toward me. Then, the picture of me and the governor that’s right there — that was at the state budget reception in May, 2014. We were celebrating four consecutive budgets and he approached me, and he hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, put his and around my waist, and we took that picture together.
At the time I thought that was wonderful and everyone was talking about it, “Oh, the governor likes you and he thinks you’re cute.” Years have passed now and I wish the environment was different for young women in Albany. I felt a little bit objectified and not seen as a professional person.
AC: We’re there ever any other incidents where there was a personal interaction like that?
AL: For me there was one occasion where I was asked if I had a boyfriend by the governor. Those interactions I thought at the time were harmless flirtations, and ‘that’s how he is.’ Other women went along with it and reacted kindly and bashfully to that kind of treatment. What really did me in, in state government, was the broader work environment which was hostile. It was toxic, retaliatory, hostile. There was screaming, there was name calling. There was a sense of fear in the air that you could say or do the wrong thing at any moment and you could lose your job. It triggered an emotional reaction and a mental health reaction from me, and my family was concerned about my health and wellbeing.
I felt isolated and I felt like nobody. So I decided to share my story because it’s a small piece of a much larger and more elaborate puzzle that I think New Yorkers should be aware of. Even though there’s people out there saying “That’s how he is, he’s from a different generation.” Yeah, that’s true, but all of that happened to me before the Me Too movement, and it’s still happening. I don’t think Albany or state government, working in the executive chamber, is a safe space of young women early in their careers.
AC: I’d also read that at one point, he kissed your hand. Was that when he had asked if if you had a boyfriend?
AL: That was one of the multiple times that he approached me. I’d be sitting at my desk and he would come through the door and talk to one of the secretaries and come over to me “how are you doing today,” and we’d have harmless banter.
There were other women who were subject to much more explicit treatment than I was. My story is not identical to Charlotte’s story, to Lindsey’s story, but I think it supports the idea that young women in our careers were powerless in that environment to stick up for ourselves or our bodies.
AC: Did his actions make you feel uncomfortable at the time?
AL: His actions made me feel really nervous, like he sees now. Now what, so you kind of just freeze. I didn’t want to appear as though I was opinionated or make too much noise because when you draw attention to yourself, it could go one of two directions.
AC: Why come out now as opposed to a couple of years ago? Because the Me Too movement did come out and this might have fit under that hashtag, so to speak. Why come out now and talk about this?
AL: When Lindsey Boylan first said something in December, I remember thinking “Wow, that’s dangerous, good luck to you, I would never open my mouth, they’re going to crush you like a bug.” Two days after she posted the tweet, I was on my honeymoon and I got a phone call from Rich Azzopardi, who is a senior adviser to the governor and his spokesperson. And he asked me — I thought at first that it was about work, like maybe it’s an economic development project that we’re working on here.
And he said instead “I have kind of an awkward question to ask you, has Lindsey Boylan reached out to you, have you spoken to her?” And I said No, and then we hung up, and I remember thinking “How many other people is he calling? Why is he calling us?” And then I also felt a little low that that’s the only reason why the governor’s office might be calling me because there were other things that we probably could have talked about.
And then weeks passed and Lindsey wrote the Medium blog post, and this really started to blow up. She got into details and she showed the receipts, and simultaneously the nursing home debacle was unfolding and I thought, “Wow, what a crisis for this administration.” And I thought, “You know, maybe it isn’t as dangerous as I thought for Lindsey to speak out. When I read her account it made me feel uncomfortable for her. She and I were the same age and I could see the governor doing the same thing to me.
She [Lindsey] called me and said she was calling me because she saw me in the workplace and she knew I may have similar stories to share. I talked to her and that made me feel seen a little bit. I had an appointment with my therapist and I talked to her and she helped me understand that what happened to me was not OK and that a lot of the emotional damage that I experienced back then still lives with me today.
I’ve been living with my story for so many years and glossing over it and swallowing it, and playing it down, pretending everything is fine when it really wasn’t. Talking about it, I realized was cathartic and made me realize it was OK to talk.
My boss [Adam Bello] is a politician and when I spoke to him I thought he was going to tell me “No way, Ana, don’t share your story or put your name on anything,” but it was very much the opposite. He said that he had my back 100% no matter what and I felt safe finally. Because I’m not coming out and saying I was propositioned or asked to play strip poker, I’m just saying I was a young vulnerable woman in what felt like a cesspit of toxicity. I get that that’s par for the course in political environments, but I don’t think it should be par for the course.
AC: And you say one of your goals in talking about this is to change the overall culture. What would you like to see specifically happen? Or what would you like to see governor do with all of this out there?
AL: I don’t know that he [Cuomo] can do anything. I appreciated that when he was asked about my narrative he did not deny anything. I also appreciate that he pointed out, rightly so, that mine is not a unique story. That is why I wanted to say something. I don’t know that he can unwind the infrastructure that he built up in his administration, the power dynamics and the social dynamics, the intermingling of personal lives and professional lives. I don’t know that he can change the culture overnight.
I do believe that he has done a lot of good for Upstate New York. I believe that he cultivated that power intentionally because he knows that’s really the only way you can get big things done in New York state. You have to grab the power and run with it, but with that comes megalomania. When you feel powerful you feel like you’re unimpeachable. I think it would be great to hear him talk much more directly in depth and less flippantly about how he sees himself as a governor and as a man and how he views women in the workplace.
AC: Do you think he should resign?
AL: I have been asked that and I don’t know that I have an answer. If he resigns for anything, the nursing home situation has cost lives, and having worked there I know how it works. You pretend like you’re solving a problem. You make some inroads toward solving a problem, then you distract the public with a narrative while all this broken stuff is happening behind the scenes. And I can only imagine how difficult it was for them to handle that PR around the nursing home thing. If he resigns for anything it should be that.
I’m not claiming sexual harassment per se, I’m just saying that it wasn’t a safe space for young women to work or women in general. There are women that didn’t fit the archetype or the stereotype that were mocked and demoted. Like I said, it was a really retaliatory place to work.
There was no HR, like I couldn’t report to anyone. As a fellow, I technically worked for New York State Homes and Community Renewals, since they signed my paychecks, but I was assigned a mentor in the executive chamber who was my boss, but then I was sort of ripped out from under that person. Then I was existing in this gray area where I didn’t have any recourse, I didn’t have any friends.
In a typical workplace environment, you might like, if something happened to me here, I would go to HR and I would file a complaint. Even if there was, they’ll tell you that, “Oh, she could have gone to the governor’s office of employee relations or whatever,” but if I had done that, I would’ve gotten fired. That’s what happened to Charlotte. She went to one of the governor’s top aides, and that was more recently. When I was there it was a lot different. There were people in my midst that later on, went to prison, so it was just an even more vicious place to work.
AC: And what’s your response to those who are saying this is all an orchestrated attack.
AL: They’re not reading the articles and they’re not paying attention. I mean, that’s foolish, it’s like QAnon. It’s tantamount to QAnon. Like to think that I would be contacted by Donald Trump’s people and be paid off? It’s laughable, and that’s a distraction.
AC: What did you think of Cuomo’s apology, both the initial statement and last week at the press conference?
AL: Last week I thought was tone deaf and disrespectful. The press conference took place and he went on for over a half hour about COVID and then the elephant in the room was Lindsey and Charlotte’s allegations. And he, I think reluctantly, responded to those questions and characterized Lindsay’s and Charlotte’s experiences as they’re just a couple of young, you know, 20 somethings or 30 somethings who got a kiss on the cheek and they’re calling it sexual harassment.
“And that’s just how I am. I’m the governor. I’m photographed hugging people, kissing people all over the place. That’s who I am.” And I thought that was, he was trying to force the narrative into, “Oh, this is just about a couple of woke millennial women who are taking advantage of the Me Too movement to call out the governor for their own gain,” which was not the case.
And so I decided that I would come forward because I wanted to support their stories and I wanted to make other women who experienced the same and similar things, empower them to feel like they can talk, that they’re not going to be maligned in the public eye — because the more of us that say “Yes, that was the dynamic. Yes. This is what it’s like,” the more real the story is.
Like I said, my story is just one tiny pebble. He’s been in politics his whole entire life. And, you know, I wish that I didn’t have to edit myself. I didn’t, I wish I didn’t have to change who I am in the workplace to function there; you know, you had to wear heels, you had to look good. I mean, you work in the news business, you have to look polished, but like the expectations for women were so much different than the expectations for men to work there, and to be taken seriously and rewarded and elevated.
AC: I’ll just note at the end here, you do have a picture of Governor Cuomo. Why is that? Is there some conflict going on in your estimation of him at this point?
AL: So when I sat down with my interview with the Wall Street Journal, and I was talking about that picture and why I have it in my office, I started to cry, because I have assigned it a great deal of value. It’s a piece of evidence that I worked there and that he saw me and I was part of his team, but on the flip side, it’s visible evidence. You know, his hand’s on my waist. It’s visible evidence of a moment in time where I remember him seeing me, coming up to me, approaching me, being somewhat flirtatious, and then other people around me being like, “Oh, Ana’s getting the attention of the governor,” and “Oh, he thinks Ana’s cute.” Recharacterizing it as something that I should put in my recycling bin is hard to think about.
I think that he’s a really great father. I’ve observed him with his daughters. He elevates women in his administration, like Melissa DeRosa pointed out. There are a lot of strong women who occupy positions of power in state government because of him. But that doesn’t excuse the patronizing behavior towards younger women who didn’t have the same kinds of connections to succeed with. As a young woman in Andrew’s administration, you’ve got to be the kind of woman that cuts other women down.
AC: What else would you like to add on that I might’ve missed
AL: I sought this out when I started seeking out mental health treatment. My family and loved ones observed that I was not doing so well. I left to go work for Cornell on my own accord. I applied for the job, I didn’t seek out any help from the administration to help me secure a position somewhere else to escape.
And at the time I viewed it as a lateral move and that I had failed, I couldn’t survive. And so I had to take a few steps back and then climb the ladder again, but what I learned several years later is that through my own capabilities and network and merit, I was able to come get to where I am today. And I tell Adam all the time that this is my dream job, my boss, Adam Bello.
Monroe County Executive Adam Bello says Liss has shown “tremendous strength” in coming forward. In a statement Saturday Bello said:
“Ana has shown tremendous strength in speaking about her experiences and the emotional trauma that resulted from her time working for the Governor. She is a valued member of my team since joining Monroe County over a year ago. I support Ana fully, as well as the other courageous women coming forward to share their stories.
Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and degrading or abusive behavior can never be tolerated, whether in the workplace or anywhere else. The tone for workplace culture is set at the top, and it is the responsibility of any leader to build a culture of respect and dignity for all persons, where all employees feel safe and know they are valued. We owe it to each of the women who have shared their experience to fully investigate their claims, and to expedite the investigation. The people of New York deserve nothing less.”
Monroe County Clerk Jamie Romeo said she stands with Liss, in a statement Sunday saing:
“I stand with Ana Liss and commend her for speaking out and sharing her story. For too many women, regardless of where you work, Ana’s story is one all too familiar. Having spent time in Albany both as a staffer and Assemblymember, I know the line between workplace and social setting all too often is a complete blur. Simple comments about appearance, smiling, or one’s personal life reinforces that you are not seen as an equal, but just a ‘girl in the room.’
Understanding that our intent does not define our impact is a fundamental shift we must embrace with every aspect of our lives. We must let these independent investigations into the governor’s conduct continue. And today we must continue the hard work of looking within, making sure that the behavior of those who lead and the policies in place in every workplace help reinforce that this conduct is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story and this full transcript.