ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — An upstate New York woman said Monday that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo grabbed her face and kissed her cheek at her home during a visit to inspect local flood damage, becoming the latest woman to accuse the embattled governor of inappropriate behavior.
Sherry Vill made the allegations during a Zoom news conference with attorney Gloria Allred, describing a spring 2017 visit to her Rochester-area home after flooding near Lake Ontario. Cuomo kissed both of her cheeks in front of family members while inspecting her flood-damaged home in what Vill felt was a “highly sexual manner.”
Then, Vill said, the governor “stopped and turned to me and said, ‘You are beautiful.’" He then inspected the damage with his staff, took Vill's hand and kissed her cheek again outside her home.
"He then approached me, took my hand and said, ‘Is there anything else you want?’” said Vill, who said she didn't know how to respond.
“While still holding one of my hands, he forcibly grabbed my face with his other big hand and kissed my cheek,” Vill said.
The governor’s lawyer, Rita Glavin, said in a Monday evening statement that Cuomo “has frequently sought to comfort New Yorkers with hugs and kisses” during crises.
“I felt like I was being manhandled,” said Vill, now 55. Vill, who is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, said the governor towered over her.
“The way he looked at me and his body language made me very uncomfortable,” she said. “I felt he was acting in a highly flirtatious and inappropriate manner, especially in front of my family and neighbors.”
A series of women, some who worked for Cuomo, have accused him of using his position of authority to sexually harass them with unwanted touching including hugs or kisses, inappropriate remarks about their sexual lives and physical appearance and comments they interpreted as gauging their interest in sexual relations. Among his accusers are two aides who still work in the governor’s office. One, who has yet to speak publicly, reportedly said the governor groped her at the Executive Mansion last summer.
Cuomo has denied touching anyone inappropriately but said he’s sorry if he made anyone uncomfortable. The governor has said his tendency to hug and kiss people as a greeting stems from his Italian-American heritage.
But Vill said she “felt embarrassed and weird about him kissing me,” and said her Italian family doesn’t kiss strangers.
“I have been in business for many years and routinely interact with male customers and vendors,” she said. “I know the difference between an innocent gesture and a sexual one. I never felt as uncomfortable as I did the day Gov. Cuomo came to my home.”
Many Democrats who have called for his resignation said the governor — New York's former attorney general — has acknowledged behavior that he should know constitutes sexual harassment. Cuomo has touted New York’s sweeping 2019 sexual harassment law that mandated anti-harassment training for employees.
New York's definition of sexual harassment hinges on whether the behavior is of a sexual nature and someone feels uncomfortable or humiliated — not whether the alleged perpetrator intended to do so. Allred said all New Yorkers should be treated with dignity and respect even if they're not the governor's employees.
The Democratic governor has brushed off widespread calls for his resignation and asked that people wait for the results of an investigation overseen by state Attorney General Letitia James. Cuomo is also facing criticism for withholding the number of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents for months, and federal prosecutors are scrutinizing how his administration handled that data.
Allred said Vill would cooperate with James' investigation, and that Vill will wait to see the results of the investigation before weighing in on what should happen next.
The state Assembly is conducting a separate investigation into whether there are grounds to impeach the governor. Allred said Vill has no plans to alert the law firm leading the Assembly judiciary committee's investigation and is focusing on the attorney general's office.
“We’ll have to see what if anything she’s willing to do after that,” Allred said. "This is not easy for Sherry. As I said, she’s been very brave. She’s never been involved in a situation like this before.”
Allred said Vill has long wanted to report the Democratic governor’s conduct, but her family was worried he would “use his power to retaliate against her and her family.”
Vill shared a copy of a July 19, 2017, letter she received from the governor in which he said he’ll help homeowners affected by the flooding.
“It was a pleasure to meet you recently,” he wrote.
The letter was only addressed to Vill, who questioned why it wasn’t addressed to her son or long-time husband, whom the governor also met. The governor also sent a signed photo of himself with Vill in her home.
She said she received a phone call “within days” from a female employee on the governor’s staff who said the governor was having an event in town and asked if Vill would like to attend.
“Notably she didn’t say my husband and I, or my family and I, only specifically me,” she said. “I purposely did not respond to the invitation. I felt very uneasy about the call. I was the only one who received the call and the personal invite from the governor.”
Glavin's statement said Cuomo sent nearly identical letters to more than 30 other people impacted by the Lake Ontario flooding, and that it’s common for the governor’s office to send signed photos to people he meets after events.
“It is common for staffers to contact constituents after events and invite them to a future event on a related topic,” Glavin said.