NY AG should lead investigation into allegations against Gov. Cuomo: Hirono

She also said Democrats will look for "indirect ways" to boost minimum wage.

February 28, 2021, 3:54 PM

The New York attorney general should launch an independent investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

"The proper response for any of these kind of allegations of reprehensible, inexcusable behavior is to listen to the -- mainly women who come forward ... and then to do the appropriate investigation and corroboration of the allegations," the senator told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos.  "In the case of Gov. Cuomo, it seems to me that the New York attorney general would be the independent entity to conduct such an investigation," she added.

Hirono's comments follow The New York Times reporting on Saturday that a second state employee had come forward accusing Cuomo of sexual harassment. The governor responded with a statement saying that he never made advances toward the woman and never intended to be inappropriate. He additionally requested an independent review of the allegations by former Federal Judge Barbara Jones.

When Stephanopoulos asked if she approved of the review announced by Cuomo, Hirono responded, "No, I wouldn't consider that to be independent. It should be, I would say, the attorney general of New York."

After Hirono’s interview Sunday morning, and following mounting backlash, Cuomo’s special counsel announced that the governor had asked the New York attorney general and the state’s chief judge to select an outside investigator to look into the sexual harassment allegations instead of relying on the independent review he'd requested the day before.

That statement on Sunday coincided with one from New York Attorney General Letitia James, which said, "Allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously. There must be a truly independent investigation to thoroughly review these troubling allegations against the governor, and I stand ready to oversee that investigation and make any appointments necessary."

Later on Sunday, James rejected the governor's call for the appointment of an outside lawyer and repeated her request for a formal referral from the governor's office so she can lead an investigation with subpoena power.

Hirono has been outspoken about sexual harassment accusations in the wake of the #MeToo movement has asked every judicial nominee about sexual harassment during their confirmation hearings.

The allegations against the New York Democrat come at a time when the party is trying to steer its $1.9 trillion COVID relief package through Congress.

While House Democrats passed the bill early Saturday morning, the Senate parliamentarian earlier in the week ruled a provision to boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour -- long sought after by progressives -- could not be included in the package.

"We are looking for other ways to, in effect, require an increase of the minimum wage, which hasn't been increased in over 10 years or so," Hirono said.  "According to the parliamentarian ... we can't do it (in the COVID relief package). We can't raise the minimum wage directly so we're going to look for indirect ways to effect that."

Several senators -- on both sides of the aisle -- have proposed other options to increase the minimum wage.

Some Republican senators -- including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. -- have suggested raising the minimum wage to $10 in exchange for strengthening the system to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers.

Budget Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is working to include an amendment to the COVID bill to strip tax breaks from companies that don't pay their employees $15 per hour.

Stephanopoulos pressed Hirono on whether she approved of "restricting the tax breaks for corporations who don't pay ($15 per hour)?"

"Yes, among other ways," she responded. "I will support all kind of ways. I mean, I basically support raising the minimum wage in the COVID bill because that is a huge part of economic recovery. The people who are suffering most from the minimum wage and what's happening in the pandemic are the essential workers, many of them are women and many of them are getting paid very low wages -- $7.25 an hour is $15,000 a year. That's poverty level."

The Senate is expected to take up the massive relief package in the coming week.

Beyond supporting Americans financially, Stephanopoulos also asked Hirono -- the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Senate -- about the recent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic. The senator laid blame on the former president.

"It's happening because we didn't have leadership at the top, starting from President Trump calling it the 'China virus' and the 'kung flu,'" Hirono said. "It unleashed this kind of targeted hate crimes against Asian-Americans. And the increase is dramatic."

In March, reporters asked Trump if his use of the terms might put Asian Americans at risk, especially amid growing reports of incidents of bias against Asian Americans.

"No, not at all. Not at all," he said.

"It's not racist at all, no," he added when asked again.

The U.S. has seen an increase in anti-Asian crime amid the pandemic. The organization Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate recorded nearly 3,000 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents nationwide between March and December of 2020 and the New York City Police Department also reported a 1,900% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes last year.

Despite the increase in violence, Hirono commended recent actions put forth by President Joe Biden.

"I'm glad that Joe Biden, unlike President Trump has put this issue forward through his executive memorandum which, by the way, contains many of the provisions that I have put in a resolution that I tried to pass last year condemning targeted hate crimes against Asian Americans," Hirono said.

"Leadership throughout our country should condemn (the violence) in no uncertain terms. When you have Asian-Americans afraid to walk down the street for the fear of being knifed, this is an issue that needs to be dealt with," she added.

ABC News' Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.

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