State prosecutors shed new light Tuesday on CNN anchor Chris Cuomo's involvement in managing the response to the sexual harassment scandal surrounding his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Chris Cuomo was in the governor's inner circle as they developed talking points and strategies in late February as accusations threatened the three-term governor, according to emails and text messages made public by investigators for New York Attorney General Letitia James.
In May, Chris Cuomo admitted having had "inappropriate" strategy talks with his brother and vowed to steer clear of the network's coverage of the governor. Tuesday's report from the attorney general hinted at the depth of the strategy consultations.
According to the report:
In a Feb. 27 chain of messages to other Cuomo allies, political consultant Lis Smith wrote, "I don't love that part but Chris/Andrew wanted in" and "Chris wants to make sure we have enough contrition in here." Smith did not definitively identify "Chris" as being Chris Cuomo, but the messages align with other suggestions he is reported to have made about messaging.
Chris Cuomo was copied into a series of Feb. 27 emails from Gov. Cuomo's communications director, Peter Ajemian, and his chief of staff, Josh Vlasto, to other top aides mapping how they should delicately handle allegations by Charlotte Bennett. They seemed to agree that the best strategy would be to praise Bennett as a "hardworking and valued member of our team" while denying her allegations.
It also appeared that Chris Cuomo played a role in writing the overall response Gov. Cuomo issued on Feb. 28 as the sexual harassment allegations reached an apex.
In an email at 3:20 p.m. ET on Feb. 28, Vlasto replied to an email from Chris Cuomo that included language that would largely make up a statement issued later by the governor.
"Questions have been raised about some of my personal interactions with people in my office," the statement attributed to Chris Cuomo's email said. "I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends. I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm."
The email continued that "sometimes I am playful and make jokes," adding: "You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. My only desire is to add some levity and banter to what is very serious business."
Later that day, Andrew Cuomo posted a statement addressing the allegations on the governor's official website.
The statement, time-stamped 5:45 p.m. ET, mirrored, nearly word for word, the email attributed to Chris Cuomo.
The governor's statement, which was picked up by several news outlets within minutes, said: "Questions have been raised about some of my past interactions with people in the office. I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm. I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends.
"At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. I do it in public and in private," the statement continued. "You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business."
Representatives for Chris Cuomo could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment on James' report Tuesday and repeated earlier network statements saying Chris Cuomo did not affect coverage of his brother.
Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she has some sympathy for Chris Cuomo and his desire to help his brother.
"As hard as it is to see your brother mired in controversy, your obligation as a journalist is to the public you serve," she said. "If it's true that Chris Cuomo drafted the statement later put out by the governor's office or he encouraged an approach that emphasized contrition, his involvement was deeper than what he disclosed to viewers in May. That moves far beyond being 'looped in to phone calls' with staff members. It's playing an active role in shaping the narrative of the controversy."
And even if Chris Cuomo did not pressure anyone at his network to change coverage of his brother, the appearance of a conflict of interest can be damaging, Culver said.
"These sorts of cases have the power to directly affect the public's trust in all news outlets, not just Chris Cuomo and CNN," Culver said. "Once that bond is damaged or broken, it's hard to rebuild."
In May, Chris Cuomo apologized for "inappropriate" conversations he had with his brother's staff during the harassment inquiry.
The Washington Post had reported at the time that Chris Cuomo participated in strategy phone calls with senior staff members for his brother and encouraged his brother to take a "defiant position" against growing calls for his resignation. Two people present on a call told the newspaper that Chris Cuomo brought up "cancel culture" as he encouraged his brother to stand his ground.
Chris Cuomo addressed the issue on his show at the time and apologized to colleagues, adding that he has not covered the allegations and has been "walled off" from CNN's coverage.
"When my brother's situation became turbulent, being looped in to calls with other friends of his and advisers that did include some of his staff — I understand why that was a problem for CNN," he said.
"It will not happen again. It was a mistake, because I put my colleagues here, who I believe are the best in the business, in a bad spot," he said. "I never intended for that, I would never intend for that, and I am sorry for that."
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