A former state economic development official appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who is the subject of investigations over alleged sexual harassment of a state employee has been sued in federal court in Manhattan. Cuomo, the Empire State Development Corp. and the state also are named as defendants in the federal civil rights lawsuit, filed by a former Department of Motor Vehicles employee against Sam Hoyt, 55, who resigned suddenly in October from his position as the regional president of the state’s economic development agency in Buffalo.
Hoyt, who was appointed by Cuomo in 2011, is under at least two separate investigations by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Inspector General’s Office, Cuomo’s office said last month.
The complaint filed by Lisa Marie Cater, 51, of Buffalo in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District on Saturday alleges that Hoyt violated her state and federal civil rights by engaging in a “pattern and practice of committing sexual harassment, assault and discrimination and retaliation” against her. She also accuses the Economic Development Corp. and the governor of turning a blind eye to her complaints, charging that they “willfully ignored” them. Cater is seeking monetary damages and fees.
In a statement, Alphonso David, counsel to the governor, said Sunday that following Cater’s initial complaint to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations in mid-October of 2016, Hoyt was instructed to have no interaction with the complainant and to cooperate with the investigation. Hoyt “did not supervise or work in the same agency as Ms. Cater,” David added.
Cater’s initial accusation was filed in mid-October 2016 and an investigation was underway by November, officials said. The Governor’s Office of Employees Relations, which initially investigated the complaint, then referred it to the Inspector General’s Office. During the inspector general’s investigation the “complainant did not comply with repeated attempts to interview her or provide any documentation, and the matter was referred to [the Joint Commission on Public Ethics] for investigation,” David said.
“With the investigation still pending, Mr. Hoyt separated from state service. The facts alleged in this complaint regarding Mr. Hoyt were not provided to state investigators and in many cases contradict the public allegations made in the last several weeks,” David said in an email.
“The state launched three separate investigations into this matter, and any assertion to the contrary is patently and demonstrably false, and as such, we expect this matter to be summarily dismissed,” he added. “All state employees deserve to be treated with respect. We address every allegation of sexual harassment seriously and will continue to take all steps to detect and root out this unacceptable behavior.”
Paul Liggieri, an associate of Derek Smith Law Group who is representing Cater, told the New York Law Journal on Monday that his client attempted to make several complaints to the governor’s office about the alleged sexual harassment, going as far as to reach out to Cuomo’s office on Facebook.
In the complaint, Cater claims she contacted Noreen VanDoren, a lawyer for the governor’s office. Cater said that VanDoren, who actually works for the state’s Office of General Services, replied to her complaint saying “What is that you want, money?”
In a phone interview on Monday, Liggieri said, “This was an attempt to bribe my client or a failed attempt at sarcasm.” He said, “assuming that that’s sarcasm on Ms. VanDoren’s [part], she is representing the state of New York and the governor himself. It’s an improper and inappropriate response.”
In a statement to The Buffalo News last month, Hoyt claimed the relationship with the then-unnamed employee was “consensual and inappropriate.” In the federal complaint, Cater, states that she sought a job with the state from Hoyt in October 2015. But after he helped get her a job with the Department of Motor Vehicles, she alleges that the married Hoyt pressured her for sex, unlawfully and “egregiously sexually assaulting and harassing the plaintiff any chance he had.” She alleges that when she rebuffed his advances he “became increasingly aggressive.” Cater further charges that when she turned to state officials for help, they “ignored and/or were completely indifferent” toward her.
Because Cater was hired through a process called management/confidential—in which an employee is designated as management or confidential [an employee that assists or acts in a confidential capacity to manager] by the Public Employment Relations Board and not a member of a negotiating unit—she “never received sexual harassment training” and wasn’t made aware of the proper avenues on how to file such a complaint, Liggieri said. Cater acknowledged in the complaint that she entered into a confidential settlement agreement of $50,000 in late 2016 with Hoyt in return for his offer to pay for mental health treatment she needed “on account of the unlawful behavior.” In exchange, Cater was to release Hoyt from “any and all liability” regarding his behavior. The signing of the confidential agreement coincides with Cater’s refusal to cooperate in the state’s investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against Hoyt, officials said.
But “alone, depressed and without any recourse,” Cater decided to speak out anyway and as a result, she contends, Hoyt resigned from his post. Cater contends in the complaint that she was “not mentally fit” to sign such an agreement but that “Hoyt forced her to” for fear of permanently losing her job and possibly being blackballed.
Cater’s attorney questioned the validity of the confidential agreement, telling the New York Law Journal that the defendant did not have an attorney present at the time and that her mental health was suffering.
“The agreement itself is being given an in-depth review,” Liggieri said.
A spokesman for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which has subpoena power, declined to answer the New York Law Journal’s questions as to whether the state agency has subpoenaed records in connection to the sexual harassment investigation into Hoyt.
“By law, we cannot comment on any potential or pending investigatory matter, the JCOPE spokesman said.
Despite JCOPE investigations supposedly being private, Hoyt was aware that the agency was investigating him for harassment allegations made by Cater, her attorney said.
“Samuel Hoyt told my client that ‘JCOPE will do nothing for you,’” Liggieri said, adding that if there’s going to be an investigation, it should be independent of the governor’s office.
A spokesman for the governor’s office did not immediately respond to the New York Law Journal’s inquiries about what prompted Hoyt’s departure or if anyone in the Cuomo administration was aware of the monetary settlement and confidentiality agreement.
Last month, Cuomo’s office said that Hoyt’s responsibilities had been scaled back, but they did not respond to questions on Monday about what that entailed or whether Hoyt’s staff was made aware of the allegations against him. Both Howard Zemsky, the head of the Empire State Development and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul praised Hoyt’s accomplishments after he left the position. It’s unclear whether they knew of the circumstances surrounding Hoyt’s departure.
Terrence Connors of Connors LLP in Buffalo confirmed to the New York Law Journal in October that he represented Hoyt in the negotiation of a voluntary settlement agreement that contained a confidentiality clause.
In an emailed statement Monday, Connors said Hoyt “acknowledged and expressed regret for a short-term, consensual relationship with Ms. Cater.” Connors added, “These new allegations are totally inconsistent with her original story and contradicted by her own email and text message correspondence. We will challenge the false allegations and enforce our settlement agreement.”
Connors did not say whether Hoyt would pursue legal action as a result of the accuser’s breach of the clause. This isn’t the first time Hoyt’s been in the news for having inappropriate relationships. In 2008, Hoyt was sanctioned by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver over a relationship the former assemblyman had with a 23-year-old Assembly intern. Hoyt was banned from participating in the Assembly’s internship or student mentoring program. The affair with the intern started before the Assembly put in place a 2004 policy barring fraternization with student interns, therefore Hoyt maintained that no rules or laws were broken.