Sexual harassment investigation report could derail Cuomo’s plans for MTA

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On Tuesday, the MTA said its new acting chief and two other top executives would “make announcements” at noon – but the sexual harassment investigation involving Gov. Andrew Cuomo apparently stood in the way.

Cuomo had previously revealed plans for a new international terminal at Kennedy Airport which will connect to the existing gateway for JetBlue, which will remain in Queens after considering a move to Florida.

But the MTA sent a “POSTPONED EVENT” email shortly after State Attorney General Letitia James began to explain how his investigation concluded that Cuomo had sexually harassed several women. This rocked a planned noon event with Janno Lieber, who the governor installed last week as interim chairman and CEO.

“No comment” was all an MTA spokesperson said when asked by THE CITY if James’ report caused the late change in plans for an agency notoriously micromanaged by Cuomo.

Latest upheaval comes as MTA struggles to emerge from crisis, with subways and buses traffic Well below pre-pandemic levels, staff shortages are slowing travel and efforts to convince all employees to get vaccinated are lagging behind.

Cuomo has made transportation infrastructure projects and the redesign of the MTA a significant part of his legacy – passions clashed with an iron fist. Those who were under his control say it can be hellish.

“It was like a sort of banana republic,” said James Vitiello, who stepped down from MTA’s board of directors in 2018, just over two years after being appointed by Marc Molinaro, the county executive of Dutchess and a former challenger to Cuomo. “He made my life so miserable that it was ultimately the deciding factor in resigning from this board.”

“Total leadership vacuum”

Even as Cuomo defiantly refuted the 168 page report With the AG’s office revealing “deeply troubling” allegations of sexual harassment, the fallout could have a significant impact on her ongoing attempt to reshape the MTA’s core roles.

“Terrible for the MTA, total leadership void,” a former senior agency official told THE CITY who asked not to be named. “How can he reasonably prioritize the MTA under this cloud?” “

Albany lawmakers in June pushed back Cuomo’s attempt to make Lieber the chief executive of the MTA and install former interim New York City Transit chairperson Sarah Feinberg as MTA chairperson.

Former New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg takes Train 7 on June 8, 2020.
Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

When state law forced Cuomo to take the top job last week, he appointed Lieber interim chief, while saying “the best long-term approach” would be for Feinberg to return as president.

But several sources told LA VILLE the plan could be threatened, with the governor facing possible impeachment.

“His chances of manipulating the legislature have just vanished,” said another former MTA executive who used the word “tyrant” to describe Cuomo. “They won’t go with anyone on his side.”

Feinberg did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY. But last week she said she hoped to join Lieber in “leading the MTA and the region through this next chapter.”

A “humiliating” atmosphere

Cuomo’s demanding style and his huge influence on the MTA have repeatedly driven out top executives at the transit agency, according to insiders.

They point the finger at the resignation of the popular transport chief Andy Byford in January 2020 and the release a year earlier of Cedrick Fulton, the head of MTA Ponts et Tunnels. Then there was the retirement at the end of 2018 of John O’Grady, an MTA official who helped shape a planned full-time shutdown of the L Line East River Tunnel before Cuomo destroyed it.

Governor Cuomo shakes hands with then NYCTA President Andy Byford during the grand opening of a Brooklyn subway station on April 12, 2018.

Governor Cuomo shakes hands with NYCTA President Andy Byford on April 12, 2018.
Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of Governor Cuomo

“For a governor to come and say you don’t know what you’re talking about is humiliating,” said a former executive. “And he did it with so many people at MTA.”

Board members, union leaders and former MTA officials said Cuomo had tightened his grip on the transit operation with the help of longtime lieutenant Larry Schwartz, who also sits on the agency’s board of directors.

Vitiello said he was subjected to “constant implied intimidation” after challenge MTA spending in 2017 at the head of the audit committee of the board of directors.

“I was trying to be a real audit chairman, but it quickly became clear that they weren’t looking for one,” Vitiello told THE CITY. “They were looking for someone to basically corroborate whatever they decided to do.”

Wobbling support

Another former board member, Charles Moerdler, who said Cuomo “prefers to play the role of a badass,” said the practical governor had been good for the MTA.

“He was there all the time to give her help,” he said. “Yes, he’s a micromanager and there are a lot of bad things, but he’s better than someone who isn’t there at all.”

But with Cuomo’s political future in question again as President Joe Biden called for his resignation, his control over the MTA may loosen.

Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks with former Vice President Joe Biden during a ceremony commemorating the victims of 9/11.

Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks with Vice President Joe Biden during a ceremony commemorating September 11, 2020.
Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

A spokesperson for the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which until recently was aligned with Cuomo, declined to comment on the governor’s recent trips.

The city’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, has calls on Cuomo leave.

At least one other major union is still considering its options.

“We are in transition. We just had new union leaders who were just sworn in yesterday, ”said Wayne Spence, president of the Federation of Public Employees, the second largest municipal union in the state.

“I’m about to go into a meeting with these new officers” to talk about it, he added.

“Dark and stressful place”

Public transit advocates have said their goals for the transit system remain unchanged.

“We are focused on the governor’s accountability to runners today and the need for a reliable and affordable system,” said Danny Pearlstein, director of policy for the Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization . “This is not a political game, but a lifeline for millions of people.”

Vitiello, the former board member, said he hoped the MTA would end up “being a true independent authority” if Cuomo stepped down.

That was not possible, he added, with Cuomo in charge.

“It became a very dark and stressful place if you were trying to get the job done,” he said.

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