NEW YORK — Less than three months ago, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman went before the news cameras to announce a lawsuit accusing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and his former studio of abusing and intimidating a multitude of women.
“We have never seen anything as despicable as what we’ve seen here,” Schneiderman declared.
Now, in a stunning turn rife with seeming hypocrisy, Schneiderman’s own career has imploded, collapsing just three hours after the 63-year-old Democrat was accused of choking, slapping, threatening or otherwise abusing four women during intimate encounters.
The allegations, which Schneiderman contests but which led him to resign, emerged Monday in an article in The New Yorker, a publication he hailed just last month for reporting on Weinstein and starting a “critical national reckoning” on sexual misconduct by powerful men.
It was a dizzying fall for a politician who put himself at the fore of the #MeToo movement and had cast himself as a defender of women ever since he worked at an abortion clinic at 17.
He is now facing a criminal investigation by a special prosecutor appointed by the governor.
Schneiderman’s disgrace stunned women’s groups, which suddenly found themselves deploring a man they had embraced as a proven and powerful ally.
“This was someone who many of us held up as a supporter and champion of the fight against gender violence,” said Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families, which aids domestic violence victims. She stood beside Schneiderman when he announced a settlement last year with a hospital that had been billing rape victims for exams.
“A tremendous betrayal. There’s no other way to put it,” Kluger said.
Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, said she was “shell-shocked” at the news. “When you have so few (male leaders) that prioritize women’s rights,” she said, “it hits like a ton of bricks.”
The National Institute for Reproductive Health, an abortion-rights group, said it was “appalled and horrified” at the alleged behavior of a man it honored as a “champion of choice” just last week at a luncheon.
The accusations rocked the state and added another chapter to its history of political sex shockers, including the prostitution scandal that felled Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2008 and the serial sexting that ultimately put former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner in prison last fall.
“It’s a moment of reckoning — and now that reckoning has come to him,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat.
Powerful fellow Democrats, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, quickly called for Schneiderman’s resignation. Cuomo on Tuesday praised Schneiderman’s accusers for having the “courage” to “take on an attorney general they believe threatened them not to go public.”
The developments brought a tart tweet from President Donald Trump’s eldest son. Schneiderman had positioned himself as a leader of the liberal resistance to Trump and had warned in a tweet last year that no one was above the law.
“You were saying???” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted.
Late-night comedian Samantha Bee, whose “Full Frontal” show last year created images of Schneiderman as a comic-book superhero taking on Trump, distanced herself from him, demanding on Twitter that he take down a recent tweet of the pictures.
Schneiderman denied assaulting anyone or engaging in non-consensual sex — “a line I would not cross,” said the divorced father of a daughter. Contradicting his accusers, he characterized his behavior as “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.”
In an interview with CNN, Ronan Farrow, co-author of the New Yorker story, disputed Schneiderman’s account. The women, Farrow said, made clear “that this was not role-playing, that this was not ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ It wasn’t in a gray area at all.”
“This was activity that happened, in many cases, fully clothed, outside of a sexual context, during arguments,” Farrow said. “In one case, a woman wasn’t even in a relationship at all with him.”
On Monday night, Schneiderman said he would resign at the close of business Tuesday because the claims will “effectively prevent me from leading the office’s work at this critical time.”
Among that work: investigating, at the governor’s request, how the Manhattan district attorney’s office handled a 2015 sexual assault complaint against Weinstein that resulted in no charges. Weinstein denies any non-consensual sex.
Tuesday evening, Cuomo appointed Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas as a special prosecutor “to investigate, and if warranted, prosecute, any and all matters concerning the public allegations against Mr. Schneiderman.”
Cuomo also directed Singas to investigate whether Schneiderman may have used his staff and office resources to “facilitate alleged abusive liaisons referenced in the article.”
Cuomo said the special prosecutor will work with the other district attorneys, including the district attorney in Suffolk County on Long Island, where one of the women detailed alleged abuse by Schneiderman after a party in the Hamptons.
Cuomo said he appointed the special prosecutor in part to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest with the attorney general’s office, which is currently investigating the actions of the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the New York Police Department in their handling of the Weinstein sex allegations.
Singas is the former head of the Special Victims Bureau at the Nassau district attorney’s office.
Some of the alleged behavior took place in 2016 and earlier, according to The New Yorker story. One of the women said her ear was bloodied, while another said Schneiderman slapped her so hard she had a mark the next day.
The statute of limitations in New York for prosecuting someone is five years for a serious assault, two years for a lower-level one.
Before the scandal, Schneiderman had been running for a third four-year term in the fall.
As a state senator before getting elected attorney general, Schneiderman chaired an inquiry that led to a colleague’s expulsion over a domestic-violence conviction.
“The Senate cannot turn a blind eye to an act of domestic violence,” declared Schneiderman, who went on to co-author a law that made choking someone a crime of its own.
During his tenure as attorney general, his office has touted pamphlets about anti-discrimination protections for domestic-violence victims, whom he has called “some of the most vulnerable residents of our state.”
And in marking the 20th anniversary of the federal Violence Against Women Act in 2014, he noted that “violence against women remains a prevalent and dangerous problem across our nation.
“Protecting all Americans from harm, regardless of their relationship to their abuser or their gender,” he added, “is and will remain one of the most important aspects of our ongoing pursuit of equal justice under law.”