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How the Fallout From Andrew Cuomo’s Resignation Spread to Jeff Zucker

When former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York was facing a cascade of sexual harassment allegations last year, his instinct was not just to fight but to eviscerate.

As the stories piled up, Mr. Cuomo brought together his inner circle, including his younger brother, the former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, to design a ferocious counteroffensive that included discrediting accusers, attacking unflattering news articles and ascribing bald political motives to the investigators.

An instinct to go for the jugular was a hallmark of the governor’s long political career. But in the year since he was first accused of sexual harassment, the tactics not only have backfired on Mr. Cuomo, who resigned in August, but also have damaged the careers of a growing constellation of powerful people around him.

The remarkable fallout continued on Wednesday when Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN and a longtime media executive, was ousted from his job. His resignation came after lawyers for Chris Cuomo, who was fired from the network for his role in his brother’s effort, mentioned Mr. Zucker’s undisclosed romantic relationship with a colleague as their client fought for millions of dollars of severance pay.

Some critics of the Cuomos saw the mounting repercussions as the natural result of the family’s penchant for scorched-earth political warfare.

“They’re known to take no prisoners. This is how they fight, and I think the feeling is, ‘If I’m going down, you’re going down,’” said Debra Katz, a lawyer representing Charlotte Bennett, one of the women who accused the former governor of sexual harassment.

Trusted advisers and allies willingly helped the former governor, who put a premium on loyalty, and paid a steep price. Some lost their jobs after it was disclosed that they had appeared to help Mr. Cuomo tarnish an accuser: Roberta Kaplan and Tina Tchen, the former leaders of Time’s Up, the national organization founded to fight sexual abuse; Alphonso David, the former president of the Human Rights Campaign, an L.G.B.T.Q. rights group; and former Cuomo aides, including two who resigned from their jobs at an influential public relations firm.

Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who has worked in campaigns both aligned with and against the former governor, described the growing fallout as a “bad movie.”

“Chris Cuomo gets whacked. Then Zucker gets whacked. The careers of 10 to 12 people who worked for Andrew Cuomo get destroyed. Public service is out of their picture. The innuendo alone is sufficient to destroy a life or a career,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “And the question is, where does it go next?”

It was Mr. Zucker’s responsibility to disclose his consensual relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president — who, in a mark of how vast the Cuomo family’s network is, briefly served as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director nearly a decade ago — and he has acknowledged his lapse. But by mentioning the relationship in their talks with the network, Mr. Cuomo and his lawyers drew criticism that they were engaging in the same combative approach that his brother often employed to maintain a tight grip on Albany for more than a decade.

“If this is a domino effect that begins with Andrew Cuomo going down from the governor’s office, and then Chris Cuomo being fired from CNN, and then Jeff Zucker losing his job at CNN, that is a remarkable chain of events,” Brian Stelter, the network’s media correspondent, said on the air Wednesday, adding that Chris Cuomo was “not going out quietly” and was perhaps “trying to burn the place down.”

A spokesman for Chris Cuomo declined to comment.

Since their downfalls, both Cuomos have continued on forceful crusades to rehabilitate their reputations and seek vindication.

The former governor has sought out former allies for their thoughts on how he may re-enter public life, even if most of the New York political class, along with voters, appears to have turned the page on him. (He was seen on Tuesday night dining in New York City with Mayor Eric Adams, who had previously called for his resignation, The New York Post reported.)

He still has a $16 million campaign war chest, and he has appeared increasingly emboldened in emails to supporters after local district attorneys closed investigations into some of the women’s claims without bringing criminal charges — even though many noted they had found the women credible.

Mr. Cuomo has particularly focused his attacks on the state attorney general, Letitia James, who led the investigation into the sexual harassment allegations, accusing her of leading a partisan inquiry.

“We have every intention of fighting until the truth comes out — and support others who were swept up in this clear case of prosecutorial misconduct to do the same,” Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for the former governor, said.

Ms. James, who was authorized by Mr. Cuomo to conduct the investigation, has repeatedly denied the charge and has said that the attacks amount to efforts to discredit the accusers.

Chris Cuomo, who was fired in December, has been vigorously contesting the terms of his exit from CNN. The network has refused to pay his severance or honor the remainder of his current contract, arguing that he engaged in unethical conduct.

For months, Mr. Zucker resisted pressure to dismiss the embattled news host, even as objections to his behavior in defense of his brother grew louder.

Concerns began at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, when CNN lifted a rule prohibiting Chris Cuomo from interviewing his brother. At the time, the elder Cuomo’s pandemic news conferences made him a media fixture.

Their on-the-air partnership ended last year, as Andrew Cuomo was confronting several scandals and investigations. But it was not yet public knowledge that Chris Cuomo had joined a group helping his brother bat down sexual-harassment allegations made against him by a former aide, Lindsey Boylan.

Testimony in Ms. James’s investigation later revealed the television journalist took part in strategy calls with the former governor and his top aides to discuss how to respond to the allegations. He also reached out to Melissa DeRosa, the former governor’s top aide, saying he had “a lead” on a woman who accused Mr. Cuomo of grabbing her face and making her feel uncomfortable at a wedding; and he checked in with his sources in journalism to ask about the status of damaging stories about his brother.

As part of the offensive, the former governor’s top aides also enlisted former staffers who had left for the private sector but had remained trusted allies and appeared willing to help.

It was that effort — which involved leaking Ms. Boylan’s personnel file to the press and drafting a never-published op-ed that assailed her character — that had the most immediate repercussions for Andrew Cuomo’s inner orbit.

After the attorney general’s report detailed the campaign against Ms. Boylan, among the first to fall were Ms. Kaplan, a nationally prominent lawyer, and Ms. Tchen, both at the top of an organization meant to fight the kind of sexual abuse and gender inequality that Andrew Cuomo’s critics said were at the heart of the allegations against him.

Some survivors of sexual abuse said the two women’s involvement in Mr. Cuomo’s defense felt like a betrayal. As pressure grew, both Ms. Kaplan and Ms. Tchen stepped down, saying their ties to the former governor had become a divisive distraction.

Mr. David, who suggested edits to the opinion piece and provided the governor’s aides with a memo about Ms. Boylan’s employment history, faced a similar outcry from employees and the board of the Human Rights Campaign.

Mr. David, who had worked as a lawyer in the Cuomo administration, has denied wrongdoing. He said that he was legally obligated to provide the memo and noted he declined to sign onto the op-ed and that he did not know the full extent of allegations against Mr. Cuomo when it was being discussed.

Still, he was fired as the organization’s president for violating its values, a move that he has vowed to fight. On Thursday, Mr. David, the group’s first Black leader, said he was suing and accused the group’s board of racial discrimination in his termination.

In August, Josh Vlasto, who had served as chief of staff to the former governor, and Richard Bamberger, his former communications director, left their jobs at Kivvit, a high-profile public relations firm.

The company said at the time that both had acted in their personal capacity, not on behalf of the firm. Mr. Vlasto, according to testimony from the governor’s top aide, strategized the leaking of Ms. Boylan’s personnel files, while Mr. Bamberger was sought out as a middleman to let certain reporters know about the materials.

Jim Malatras was the chancellor of the state’s public university system when private text messages emerged showing that he had disparaged Ms. Boylan. His messages about Ms. Boylan were unrelated to her sexual harassment claims and were sent 18 months before she went public with her allegations.

Still, under mounting pressure, he resigned in December.

Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin contributed reporting.

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