“SANDREW” was the perfect couple. The beautiful and warm TV cooking-show star softened the gruff, hard-charging governor’s sharp edges. Her telegenic smile seemed to transform his perpetual scowl.
During their 14 years together Sandra Lee never publicly criticized her life partner, and Andrew Cuomo gushed about the “godsend” who helped him raise his three daughters. When she became sick with cancer, he was seen as a loving fixture by her side.
In September 2019, the fairytale romance suddenly unraveled and a disbelieving public clamored to know why. Now, as a tornado of sexual-harassment charges swirls around Cuomo, the first clues may be emerging.
Lee, ever composed, remains outwardly stoic and above the fray — even as multiple sources told The Post they suspect Cuomo was cheating on her with at least one staffer and possibly several.
“Sandra’s gone silent and her silence is deafening,” said the insider. “The question is, is Sandra being silent out of grace and dignity, or is she being silenced out of fear of retaliation?” Lee did not comment.
Cuomo told The Post: “Any suggestion that I had a sexual relationship with any member of my staff or that I was unfaithful to Sandy is false.”
“Any suggestion that I had a sexual relationship with any member of my staff or that I was unfaithful to Sandy is false.”
— New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., is accompanied by his girlfriend Sandra Lee as they arrive for a state dinner at the White House in Washington, Oct. 18, 2016. (Associated Press)
Following the devastating breakup, Lee, 54, started a new life in Malibu, Calif. She refused to speak to The Post about her relationship with Cuomo, 63, or the ugly allegations that have led to a state investigation and calls for impeachment.
Still, reports and investigations into whether Cuomo sexually harassed staffers in and around the workplace have raised questions about how his alleged behavior affected his last long-term relationship, and if his pursuit of other women could have contributed to the mysterious break-up.
The Post also spoke to staffers who claimed that Lee was kept at arm’s-length while Cuomo spent time with favored colleagues around the clock. And the allegations from female staffers of improper flirting, touching and comments going back 21 years have raised questions about whether Cuomo was faithful during his relationship with Lee.
‘Andrew is toxic’
“Andrew is toxic. There’s obviously a reason why Sandra moved to California — she literally could not have moved farther away from Andrew. She’s on the edge of the Pacific,” the insider added.
A former senior Cuomo staffer said ominously: “Andrew’s treatment of Sandra is part of the puzzle that will finalize the picture about this guy.”
Sources told The Post how Cuomo threw boozy parties at the pool house in the governor’s mansion and “movie nights” attended by female staffers, all without Lee, who often traveled to the West Coast to care for her family.
While it is possible that such events were innocent — if awkward — morale-building exercises for the many staffers (male and female) in attendance, these details form part of the pattern that emerged after former staffers spoke out about inappropriate behavior where lines between Cuomo’s personal and professional lives became blurred.
Five former Cuomo staffers told The Post they are convinced he became involved, or pursued intimate relationships, with a small number of staffers while living with Lee.
“It was an open secret,” said one ex-aide. “Andrew was sleeping with at least one other woman who wasn’t Sandra” before they officially ended their relationship.
“Andrew was sleeping with at least one other woman who wasn’t Sandra.”
— Former Cuomo aide
A second former staffer told how State Troopers who came to pick up Cuomo one morning at the home Cuomo and Lee shared in Mount Kisco, Westchester, were stunned to see him leave the house with a staffer. Asked if it was possible they had been working, the former staffer said it was doubtful: “There was no reason for this woman to be there so early.”
Cuomo, through a spokesman, denied any staffer ever spent the night at the Mount Kisco house, saying that occasionally staffers would meet him at the house in the morning so they could join his entourage for a ride to an event or meeting.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sandra Lee attend "RX: Early Detection A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee" New York screening at HBO Theater on Oct. 2, 2018 in New York City. (Getty Images)
Staffers also raised questions about Cuomo’s travel arrangements. When Cuomo traveled to Jerusalem in March 2017, a third former staffer claimed the governor and a female staffer were booked into linked, adjoining rooms. Although this could have been entirely innocent, the source said suspicions were raised when official logs were changed to show a State Police officer staying in the adjacent room.
Cuomo claims this was accidental.
“On trips, as a rule, only State Police security or advance staff were assigned to adjoining rooms with the governor — when I saw that the hotel had made a room assignment not keeping with that rule, I switched rooms so that I was in the adjoining room and the other staff person was moved across the hall,” said Steve Cannon, who was the lead advance person on March 2017 Israel trip.
Cuomo denied any liaisons during the Israel trip, and his spokesman provided a busy travel itinerary that showed Cuomo had almost no free time.
However, the document showed that he had a room at the King David Hotel, and a scheduling gap between a 7 p.m. meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his 12:45 a.m. flight home. Cuomo’s office claimed the extra time was spent with Israeli media. The Israel part of the weekly schedule — unlike other days of the week where every event or meeting appeared with a list of names of staffers present — fails to list any member of his entourage.
“There was no sleep over on this trip — according to our records, after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the governor and the state delegation arrived back at the hotel around 8.15pm, the governor then had dinner with prominent media officials in the lobby before departing for the airport at 9.45pm,” Azzopardi said.
Through a back door
It wasn’t just geographical distance that may have pushed Lee and Cuomo apart. During the relationship, former staffers described how Cuomo would tell his office not to let Lee know where he was as he enjoyed drinks late at night at Docks, a seafood restaurant in the same building as the governor’s Midtown office, with senior female staff. After entering through a back door leading from the office building to a private room, Cuomo would hold court, according to the former staffers.
The flood of accusations from former staffers accusing Cuomo of inappropriate behavior in social scenarios (which he largely denies) raises questions about whether any of these round-the-clock interactions led to romantic relationships.
Cuomo is notoriously secretive about his life and tightly controls what is revealed about his personal and working relationships, as evidenced by his continuing use of a BlackBerry, sources said. Even though Cuomo’s office announced in November 2019 that staffers’ BlackBerrys were being phased out for iPhones, the governor still uses one. According to Politico, Cuomo preferred BlackBerry’s PIN-to-PIN messaging system to avoid paper trails. A former staffer told The Post: “Andrew was extremely security-conscious; if he was doing anything, you would not be able to find it out.”
“Andrew was extremely security-conscious; if he was doing anything, you would not be able to find it out.”
— Former Cuomo staffer
Aside from the suspicion of romantic relationships, Cuomo also cultivated a “mean girls” atmosphere inside his office where he allowed his staff to make fun of Lee — and encouraged them to hide his calendar from her and prevent her from joining him at events.
Former aide Ana Liss, one of the parade of Cuomo accusers — who told The Wall Street Journal how the governor “asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk” — confirmed to The Post that Lee was deliberately kept away from Cuomo’s diary by staffers, including top current aide Melissa DeRosa and current Director of the Governor’s Offices Stephanie Benton.
“My understanding is that Sandra was viewed . . . as merely an accessory,” she said.
Cuomo’s office countered that “the office e-mailed Sandra a schedule each night of the governor’s movements for the following day.”
Liss continued, “I know from my time working there that Sandra was very clearly kept away from Andrew by the folks controlling his schedule. She was only brought forth in public on certain special occasions. Given the lack of frequency of their time spent together publicly and privately, it had a performative nature about it. It felt like watching Princess Diana. She [Sandra] is a beautiful, statuesque woman who complemented the governor’s gruffness.
“Sandra was very clearly kept away from Andrew by the folks controlling his schedule.”
— Ana Liss, a Cuomo accuser
“She never stayed at the mansion that I was aware of,” said Liss, who added that it “did strike me as odd that he was rarely at home with her.”
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said Lee did in fact spend time at the Albany mansion, just as Cuomo spent plenty of time at Lily Pond, the colonial-style Westchester estate where Lee had made a home for them. Azzopardi added that Cuomo did not have a Manhattan apartment.
“It was Sandra’s forever home, her dream home,” Liss said. “But as a staff member for two years, I monitored Andrew’s schedule every day, to know what he was doing and focused on. He spent most of his time in Manhattan.”
During scheduling calls, the ex-senior staffer recalled, “I would ask whether Sandra was going on a trip with Andrew, and all the mean girls like Stephanie Benton and [current Cuomo director of scheduling] Annabel Walsh would start laughing and say nothing. They would be rolling their eyes.”
One of the last times “that Sandra attended an event with Andrew was the Pride Parade in the city in June 2018. She loved coming and it was a really important event to her.
“And people from the office were hostile, they totally ignored her. She had her sunglasses on the whole time and looked so sad.
“Andrew humiliates people, one way or another.”
“Andrew humiliates people, one way or another.”
— Ana Liss, a Cuomo accuser
Walsh and Benton did not return messages seeking comment.
The Governor’s Office denied Sandra was ill-treated by staff. “Sandra was very much part of the family and the office has nothing but respect for her,” Azzopardi said.
Away from Lee, Cuomo threw pool bashes that Liss described as turning into nights of boozing, although Cuomo’s rep stresses that the governor does not drink.
Speaking about the pool-house parties, the former senior staffer said: “I attended them, You had to go — it was a sign you were senior in the administration.”
Although the staffer never saw any sexual activity, she found the arrangement uncomfortable. “They were so awkward, everyone standing around like court jesters, and Andrew would be watching you, he had a photographer there, even though it was basically an internal staff meeting — it was creepy beyond belief.
“And I’m certain that the same collection of people — his favorites — slept over there. Imagine how that looks to the rest of the office.”
On one occasion, Cuomo invited four female staffers to a movie-night sleepover at the mansion, the ex-senior staffer said.
Azzopardi said any informal gatherings at the governor’s mansion, whether inside watching movies or having a meal and drinks in the pool house, were family-friendly and co-ed and never resulted in guests staying the night.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seen outside his home last month. (Reuters)
Despite the extracurricular activities and the pattern of questionable behavior at work alleged by no less than seven women, Cuomo was famously portrayed as the doting boyfriend when Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and underwent a grueling double mastectomy.
Privately, those who worked for him pondered whether he was merely using his partner’s illness as a publicity stunt.
Cuomo even appeared wearing a mask and scrubs alongside Lee, who documented every aspect of her illness — from diagnosis to surgery and recovery — on camera for her HBO documentary “Rx: Early Detection, A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee.”
“After Sandy decided to make her breast-cancer diagnosis public, she and the governor vowed to fight for New York families together — it was a terribly painful time for the entire family and for someone to try to distort that is just wrong,” said Azzopardi.
In his 2014 book, “All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics,” Cuomo gushed about Lee, writing: “Why she got involved with me I don’t know. I was not much of a catch. But Sandy was. Smart, successful and gorgeous, she had launched her flagship show, ‘Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee,’ a few years earlier. She has enormous appeal to viewers and to readers of her books and magazine, who lead busy lives and to put good food on the table quickly. No marketing gimmick, her ‘smart and simple’ approach grew out of her hardscrabble beginnings: the eldest of five children, with an abusive mother and stepfather, Sandy had to shop and cook for the household and take care of her siblings — on welfare and food stamps — starting when she was 12 . . . more than a catch, Sandy was a godsend.”
He also praised her for being “an exquisitely kind, loving and nurturing person with an uncommon ability to connect with people. She was adept at taking care of three young girls as I was not. My children took to her immediately, and as they’ve grown older, she has been a significant presence in their lives. We have made a family.”
Liss said of the cancer drama: “By that time, I wasn’t working in the Governor’s Office, but those of us not there who were still in touch speculated that he was using it as a p.r. stunt, something to add to his credibility as a man and politician who is a proclaimed feminist — even though internally within the workplace that he oversaw he was very much not pro-woman.”
An insider close to the couple observed of Cuomo’s workplace behavior: “If someone acts this badly in the office 12 hours a day, how do they come home and turn into Mr. Wonderful unless they are Jekyll and Hyde?”
Cuomo’s latest accuser, Sherry Vill, said Cuomo forcibly kissed her cheeks and made her uncomfortable while examining flood damage at her home. Other accusations range from groping a woman under her shirt and planting unwanted kisses, to asking inappropriate questions about sex and dating.
The Democratic governor has said he “never touched anyone inappropriately” and “never made any inappropriate advances,” and that no one ever told him at the time that he was making them uncomfortable. He has called some allegations false but apologized if his overly familiar behavior made anyone feel uncomfortable.
Cuomo has also suggested that he was simply being an old-school politician in greeting people with hugs and kisses — and that “sensitivities” have changed.
An investigation into the sexual-harassment allegations is currently being led by attorneys Joon Kim, a former prosecutor with the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and Anne Clark, an employment-discrimination attorney. The duo was selected by state Attorney General Letitia James, a Cuomo ally, to lead the probe.
How they met
Lee and Cuomo first met in 2005 while guests at a cocktail party at the Hamptons home of Domna Stanton, a French professor at the City University of New York, and were introduced by one of Lee’s best friends, political adviser Alexandra Stanton, as Nancy Pelosi looked on.
Though they were immediately smitten, they were each finalizing their respective divorces: Cuomo to Kerry Kennedy, the mother of his three daughters, and Lee to Bruce Karatz, the former CEO of KB Home. Karatz was 22 years Lee’s senior and in 2010 he was convicted of lying about the backdating of stock options at the LA-based homebuilder firm. Besides house arrest at his Bel Air mansion, Karatz was sentenced to five years’ probation, fined $1 million and ordered to do 2,000 hours of community service.
Andrew Cuomo and then-wife Kerry Kennedy Cuomo attend the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, May 1, 1999. (Getty Images)
Friends of Kerry Kennedy spoke of “instances of physical abuse” in the marriage before they divorced in 2005, according to an author who published a book on Cuomo.
Michael Shnayerson, a journalist and contributing editor with Vanity Fair, claimed that Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, slept in a locked bathroom several nights after Cuomo refused to leave the house when she told him she wanted a divorce.
“I’ve been a human-rights activist, and for women who have abusive husbands,” Kennedy allegedly told a friend, “and here I am enduring this abuse.”
Shnayerson also claimed Cuomo tried to punish Kennedy after the divorce was announced by leaking stories to the press about how she had an affair with a ‘Republican polo player’ so that the public would blame her, and the split would not harm his political career.
As a couple, Cuomo and Lee maintained a low-key profile. She didn’t campaign with him in his race for governor in 2010, and they appeared together only occasionally at official events. She explained their public shyness as a way of guarding their privacy. “I have a partner,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2011, “who feels the exact same way as I do about protecting our personal relationship.
“More than anything now, I feel really lucky to have a relationship that’s just mine and that I get to go home to, that’s a safe haven, and that I have something that’s not the whole world’s, too,” she said.
Lee — who has no children of her own — cherishes her relationships with Cuomo’s daughters, Mariah, Cara and Michaela Kennedy-Cuomo.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in Puerto Rico with his daughters Mariah, Cara and Michaela on Nov. 29, 2019. (Gabriel López Albarrán)
Lee and the girls grew so close that she continues to refer to them as her “weekend daughters.” They each had their own bedrooms at Lily Pond, the home Lee owned outright.
“I adore Andrew’s girls,” Lee told Page Six last month.
Lee and Cuomo never wed, but Lee dutifully threw herself into the role of political “wife.”
“Sandra was reluctant to be New York’s first lady, but she did it and put her all into it and invested herself into New York philanthropy,” the insider who knows the couple said.
“And over the years her All-American image helped soften his Prince of Darkness image statewide and on the national stage.”
Recalling Cuomo’s relationship with Lee, Liss — who recently met with investigators from the state AG’s Office — said: “Of the handful of interactions I had with Sandra, I thought that she was lovely. She always had her hands on the governor in such a way that I felt that she was enamored of him.”
At home in California, Lee has spent the past year working on new TV projects and working alongside major networks, while traveling to Arizona to care for her beloved Uncle Bill, who has just battled COVID.
Her Facebook page is filled with fans telling her they are glad she got out of her relationship with Cuomo and telling her to find new love.
Ex-TV exec Rob Morhaim, who has known Lee for two decades, said Lee will weather this storm like she has all the others.
“Sandra’s a strong woman. Whatever she’s going through, I doubt you will ever see her sweat,” he said.
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