Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2569 Fri, 13 Dec 2019 22:16:17 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: A Hearing on Sexual Harassment in Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8286-max-murphy-podcast-a-hearing-on-sexual-harassment-in-albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8286-max-murphy-podcast-a-hearing-on-sexual-harassment-in-albany mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


February 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: A Hearing on Sexual Harassment in Albany, with Rita Pasarell of the Sexual Harassment Working Group

rita pasarell wbai 150Rita Pasarell was a victim of sexual harassment as a legislative aide and has more recently been an advocate pushing the state to hold public hearings on sexual harassment and improve its laws to combat the scourge in the public and private sectors. After much advocacy, the state Legislature held its first hearing in decades on Wednesday February 13. Pasarell and her colleagues were among those to testify. She joined the show to discuss the hearing and related issues.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: A Hearing on Sexual Harassment in Albany Wed, 13 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Hochul Asserts Previously Unmentioned Role in Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7905-hochul-asserts-previously-unmentioned-role-in-anti-sexual-harassment-laws https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7905-hochul-asserts-previously-unmentioned-role-in-anti-sexual-harassment-laws Kathy Hochul

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (photo: The Governor's Office)


Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday said she was “very much involved” in the recently signed laws aimed at combating sexual harassment in the workplace — a claim that comes in stark contrast to all prior indications that the legislation had been determined exclusively by four elected men and no elected women.

“I was used as a resource, as someone who has lived this experience personally, which is why I’m so passionate about standing up for women,” Hochul said while debating her Democratic primary challenger, City Council Member Jumaane Williams.

“I was there helping chart the course that the state ended up adopting,” she added, responding to a question from Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max, who moderated the debate hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

Following the debate, Hochul told a group of reporters that her “views were taken into consideration” in the legislation, adding context to the apparent debate revelation, which came after months of criticism aimed at Governor Andrew Cuomo, Hochul’s running-mate, and legislative leaders, over a lack of public hearings and female input on the legislation.

Throughout the race and the debate, Hochul has fended off criticism from Williams — an insurgent running to the lieutenant governor’s left on most issues while promising to reinvent the position if elected — who argues her role has in practice been merely a ceremonial ribbon-cutting one. She said Wednesday that not only has she had a hand in a variety of policy work, but that ribbon-cuttings should not be denigrated, given that they show something positive happening that benefits constituents.

Although the state’s new anti-sexual harassment laws have been heavily touted by Cuomo, Hochul and their allies, there has been ongoing criticism that they were passed without the direct input of elected women or harassment victims. Instead, the behind-closed-doors negotiations involved four elected men: Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senator Jeff Klein, then-leader of the now-defunct Senate Independent Democratic Conference, who has been accused by a former staffer of forcibly kissing her.

In the lead-up to those final negotiations before the larger state budget deal of which the anti-harassment bills were a part, Cuomo’s office had said that Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat and the only woman leader of a legislative conference, would be included in the talks on harassment prevention. But she was not. Amid criticism, neither the governor nor anyone from his team publicly indicated that Hochul had been involved.

Chief among the critics of the process and product was the Sexual Harassment Working Group — a new coalition of seven women who have alleged facing sexual harassment or abuse while working in state government. One of the women, Rita Pasarell, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday that she had “not heard of Lieutenant Governor Hochul's involvement until her recent statements.” Pasarell said she “would like to hear more about what specific parts of the law she advocated for and how she believes these will help workers.”

“I would also like to know if she has spoken to any victims who have reported sexual harassment at work, including government workers,” she added. “While the 2018 laws make some progress, there is much room for improvement.”

She said, extent of Hochul’s role in the process aside, it would be no substitute for a “transparent public vetting for legislation.”

“We need to create victim-informed laws by listening to workers across industries, in public hearings,” Pasarell said.

For her part, Senator Stewart-Cousins, who was briefed on discussions but not included in them, said in June on the Max & Murphy podcast that it was “strange” to her that she did not have a seat at the table when the legislation was being drafted.

“As the only elected woman leader, and the only elected woman leader that has led a conference in the history of New York State, during this #MeToo moment, you would have thought you would have been able to get in a room and at least let her say something,” she continued. “Never happened.”

This line of criticism prompted pushback from some in the governor’s office, who noted that there were female aides who had a hand in crafting the sexual harassment legislation.

“Actually, I am in the room-along w other top female aides to the Senate & Assembly,” Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, tweeted in late March, attempting to throw cold water on the assertion that no women were involved in the legislative process. “It’s sad, though not entirely surprising, that even when a woman like me is in the room helping to lead the charge, some only see a room full of men.”

There was no mention of Hochul.

Asked for more explanation the day after the Hochul-Williams debate, Haley Viccaro, a spokesperson for Hochul, described the lieutenant governor’s role in informing the anti-sexual harassment legislation.

"The Lieutenant Governor often meets with women across New York and discusses issues important to them. Of course in the #MeToo era, sexual harassment is a topic that's unavoidable,” she said Thursday in a statement. “As she said, she was used as a resource as someone who has lived with this experience personally, which is why she is so passionate about standing up for women all across this country who have been silenced by men who have abused their power.”

Viccaro went on to say that Hochul was “most focused” on ensuring that the sexual harassment policy applied to both public and private employers.

“The Lieutenant Governor feels strongly that all New Yorkers deserve to have a safe and harassment-free workplace, and she has been very vocal that there must be a standard that reflects our seismic societal shift to a culture that treats men and women equally," she said.

In a statement, Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, echoed the sentiment expressed by the lieutenant governor during Wednesday’s debate.

“The Lieutenant Governor’s leadership and partnership in advocating for causes important to women across the state has been indispensable,” she said, “including her strong advocacy for extending the state’s sexual harassment model policies to private employers which will make workplaces safer for all New Yorkers.”

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Hochul Asserts Previously Unmentioned Role in Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws Thu, 30 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Silent Amid Intensifying Calls for Sexual Harassment Hearings https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7845-cuomo-and-legislative-leaders-silent-amid-intensifying-calls-for-sexual-harassment-hearings https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7845-cuomo-and-legislative-leaders-silent-amid-intensifying-calls-for-sexual-harassment-hearings Cuomo Women's Equality Act presser 2013

Gov. Cuomo in 2013 (photo: The Governor's Office)


As part of the #MeToo movement, a group of women who experienced sexual harassment or abuse while working in New York state government have for months been advocating for public hearings on the culture that enables that misconduct in government, especially the state capital, and in the private sector. Their calls have intensified -- and been echoed by prominent women running for state elected offices this year -- after Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders passed new anti-harassment laws without any public hearings and without going far enough, according to the women.

Those calls have fallen on deaf ears from the men who control state government, however, with Cuomo touting the new laws as the “strongest in the nation” as he seeks a third term and leaders of the Assembly and Senate, including one accused of forcibly kissing an aide, largely remaining silent.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group, seven women who launched the #HarassmentFreeAlbany movement, have criticized the Democratic governor and bi-partisan Legislature for passing an inadequate package of anti-sexual harassment legislation in this year’s budget, agreed upon in late March. The policies were negotiated by Cuomo, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senator Jeff Klein, then-leader of the Independent Democratic Conference that has since rejoined the mainline Democrats.

The criticism that the “four men in a room” had for years epitomized the opacity of state budget negotiations was made all the more stark by the fact that they decided how to tackle sexual harassment without hearings, without significant consultation with female legislators -- including the lone woman to lead a legislative conference, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who had been promised a seat at the table -- and without those who had been subject to harassment or abuse, as well as the glaring inclusion of Klein, who was accused earlier this year of forcibly kissing a staffer in 2015 outside an Albany bar. Klein’s accuser, Erica Vladimer is among the members of The Sexual Harassment Working Group.   

In consultation with experts, the group has issued a set of recommendations for enacting stronger anti-harassment protections and have been joined in their cause by the likes of Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who is running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, and actor and activist Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, along with rank-and-file state legislators and other advocates.

At a news conference in Manhattan on Wednesday, August 1, Vladimer, other members of the group, and Zenaida Mendez, former President of NOW New York, appeared with Nixon, urging Cuomo to take action.

“It’s time to stop putting politics over human rights,” Vladimer said, “and the first way we can do that is with public hearings...where workers from every industry -- government, retail, food service, hospitality -- can be heard by those we elect to legislatie on our behalf and those who are appointed to enforce those protections.”

Nixon, running to be the first woman elected governor of New York, issued scathing remarks against Cuomo. “New Yorkers deserve better than a governor who ignores victims and chooses instead to protect and sometimes even promote those accused of harassment and worse,” she said. The first-time candidate recently released a video ad that cut back-and-forth between footage of Cuomo and President Donald Trump using similar rhetoric that smacks of ‘toxic masculinity.’

In an editorial for the Albany Times Union on Friday, two members of the group, Leah Hebert and Rita Pasarell, who were subjected to harassment by former Assemblymember Vito Lopez when they worked in his office, criticized Cuomo for his “strongest in the nation” claim about New York’s new anti-sexual harassment laws.

“[E]ven after accounting for rhetorical hyperbole in an election year, the new measures fall far short of what's needed,” Hebert and Pasarell wrote. “They lack teeth for enforcement. They fail to address many obstacles that prevent victims from seeking redress in court. They do nothing to fix the pervasive abuse in Albany, highlighted by more than 100 current and former state employees in an open letter. These new measures were passed in the same way gender-based harassment and discrimination often happen: behind closed doors.” 

They noted how the New York City Council recently passed its own set of bills on sexual harassment after holding hearings to solicit testimony from those affected by it and from experts. The Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act included almost a dozen bills that were crafted after multiple hours-long hearings of the Council’s Committee on Women and the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. The bills, signed into law by the mayor, mandated, among other things, anti-sexual harassment trainings at city agencies and in private businesses, increased transparency from agencies on harassment complaints, stronger protections under the city’s human rights law, and added reporting requirements for city contractors.

Besides the open and very public process compared with how the new state policies were created, the city laws appear to be somewhat more expansive. The state policies require state contractors to provide anti-harassment training to all employees, prohibit mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment complaints, ban non-disclosure agreements unless a victim demands one, and extend harassment protections to non-traditional employees such as freelanders, contractors, and vendors. A broader model policy is still due from the state Division of Human Rights, which is meant to apply across the public and private sectors.

Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan, on the other hand, have shown no indication that they are listening. Spokespeople for all three officials did not respond to, or even acknowledge, requests for comment from Gotham Gazette about why there have been no public hearings, whether they are open to the idea, or if they had reviewed the recommendations put out by the Sexual Harassment Working Group. A Cuomo spokesperson told Gotham Gazette in late June that the administrations did “look forward to reviewing these recommendations,” but there’s no indication that has happened.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor, also backed the call for public hearings on Thursday. “I pledge to insist on such hearings in Albany next year, should I be honored to be elected governor in November,” he said. “Albany’s culture will change. The coverups we have seen under Andrew Cuomo’s tenure are inexcusable and wrong.”

Molinaro, Nixon, and other Cuomo opponents and critics have also been seizing on recent revelations reported by the Albany Times Union around how victims of sexual harassment have been treated within the broader executive branch.

In the attorney general race, Teachout has been vocal about using the office’s power, if she is elected, to investigate sexual harassment, even in the private sector if it happens under her jurisdiction. Teachout also joined the Sexual Harassment Working Group when they were in Albany last month pressing their demands.

“The idea that New York State — in the middle of a national #TimesUp movement, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, after all these scandals — that New York has not fixed its own problem is a total shame and disaster and suggests that our old boys club isn’t only covering up corruption but also covering up sexual misconduct,” Teachout said at the news conference, Politico New York reported. She urged her three Democratic primary opponents to join the calls for hearings and improved laws.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, also running for attorney general, has called for a “full-scale investigation” into harassment in state government. Leecia Eve, a former Cuomo and Hillary Clinton aide now running for attorney general, also supports holding hearings, according to a campaign spokesperson.

Delaney Kempner, a campaign spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James, who is the State Democratic Party’s preferred candidate for attorney general and has cross-endorsed with Cuomo, sent a statement to Gotham Gazette that touted work James has done co-sponsoring legislation on mandatory sexual harassment training and reporting, and advocating against forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts.

But the statement did not indicate whether James supports the call for hearings on sexual harassment in state government and beyond or believes that the new state laws passed are sufficient. “It is clear that our laws have not protected women in the workforce from harassment and abuse, both in Albany and across the state…,” Kempner said. “We must improve our laws and change our culture. As Attorney General, Tish will continue to stand up for the women of New York and investigate anyone who seeks to abuse or harass us. That is how we make lasting change.”

[Read: Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Silent Amid Intensifying Calls for Sexual Harassment Hearings Mon, 06 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7764-pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7764-pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies gov cuomo bill clinton electoral

(photo via the Governor's Office)


The problem of sexual harassment in New York state politics is systemic and plaguing young women beginning their careers, according to a group fighting to change the culture and the laws around the issue. And, they argue that recently adopted state measures to fight the scourge are insufficient, despite being touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo as “the best in the nation.”

The seven women of The Sexual Harassment Working Group -- all of whom have been personally affected by sexual harassment while working for lawmakers in the New York State Legislature -- have consulted a handful of advocacy and legal groups, and called upon their own experiences and expertise, to put together a detailed report with recommendations for ways to better protect women working in government.

“We wonder why there aren’t women in higher office, we wonder why women are so underrepesented in our legislature and in all levels of our government. And this is a big part of why: It does not feel safe to work in government if you’re a woman,” co-author Eliyanna Kaiser, a one-time chief of staff to former Assemblymember Micah Kellner, said during an event in Manhattan on June 19. Kaiser was not herself directly a victim of sexual harassment, but instead reported to Bill Collins in the Assembly Counsel's office, under former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that Kellner had been sending inappropriate messages to one of his staffers, which led to initial inaction, attacks against Kaiser, and, eventually, Kellner’s ouster from the state Legislature.

Also on the panel were working group members and co-authors Danielle Bennett, former administrative assistant to Kellner who reported his harassment to Kaiser; Leah Hebert, former chief of staff to the late, disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez; Tori Burhans Kelly, former legislative aide to Lopez; Rita Pasarell, former legislative counsel and deputy chief of staff to Lopez; Erica Vladimer, former education policy analyst and counsel for the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC); and Elizabeth Crothers, former legislative aide in the New York State Assembly who publicly accused Assembly lawyer Michael Boxley of rape in 2003, two years after the alleged incident and when another victim of Boxley’s came forward. The discussion was moderated by political consultant and columnist Alexis Grenell, who has helped bring to light victims’ experiences as well as the insufficient responses from government officials.

The stories of these women run together in a horror plot that involves countless obstacles to reporting, near-dismissal, and a reluctance to investigate from those in charge, as well as forcibly implemented nondisclosure agreements that hinder the complainant's chances of reemployment and their ability to warn others.

“I agreed not to file a civil suit in exchange for [him to get] a HIV test,” Crothers said, adding the “loss of anonymity” after going public “follows you.”

“I really didn’t think there was another way out aside from suicide,” said Hebert, who was one of the first women to complain about Lopez groping and harassing female staffers, of her experience.

“These things that are happening are not the product of an individual harasser, they’re not mistakes,” Pasarell, another complainant against Lopez, added. “It’s massive, it’s systemic, and whenever I hear a new person coming out I say, ‘hey remember us, remember this happened to us in 2012?’”

It’s a cycle that exploits women and protects men who behave abhorrently and, as Grenell pointed out, it’s a reality yet unchanged by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s claims that New York has the “strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation” following the recent budget, wherein the anti-harassment legislation was passed. Grenell compared the governor’s statement to the “mission accomplished sign” former President George W. Bush stood in front of during 2003 remarks about the war in Iraq, only two months after the U.S. first invaded.

The Working Group is calling for Cuomo to hold public hearings to listen to victims of sexual harassment -- as its members demanded before the policies were decided by all-male leadership with little apparent regard for the opinions of victims. The group’s Harassment-Free Albany website states: “New York State has not held a state hearing on sexual harassment since Governor Mario Cuomo [Andrew Cuomo’s father] created a Sexual Harassment Task Force in 1992.”

The reporting system has no transparency for complainants, limited uniformity, and an obvious lack of objectivity, the panel urges. For example, when Vladimer, who this January publicly accused now-Deputy Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein of kissing her forcibly and against her will outside a bar in 2015, was asked where her case is at now, she said she has no idea.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vladimer told event attendees on Tuesday. “[It’s with] the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics [JCOPE], which under some very vague executive law somehow has the authority to investigate sexual harassment claims. There are no experts on this commission and the commissioners who vote to decide whether or not there is wrongdoing are all appointed by elected officials.” They are also almost all men, with one woman in 14 commissioners.

“I don’t know where my investigation is and I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve talked about is that there is no transparency and I know, and have been told, I don’t have a right to know where my investigation’s going,” Vladimer added.

When Vladimer went public, Klein immediately denied the allegations, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said the Senate would not investigate given no formal complaint had been lodged with its internal staff. Klein himself asked JCOPE to investigate, but other than Klein indicating an investigation had commenced, there is little information to go by.

In the lead-up to the new state budget, Cuomo had called for sweeping anti-sexual harassment policies, including greater resources for and transparency in JCOPE investigations. While Cuomo pushed through some measures, those JCOPE recommendations were not among what was passed into law.

The same Klein accused of sexually harassing Vladimer was one of the three other elected men, and no elected women, who assisted Cuomo in deciding the sexual harassment legislation this March, ahead of the annual budget. According to the budget, there are five measures designed to address sexual harassment in state politics -- as the governor’s office puts it, to “further build upon his 2018 Women’s Agenda for New York.”

In a press release announcing highlights of the new budget in March, Cuomo said, "We put into place the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation, ending once and for all the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled this unacceptable behavior for far too long.”

Under the new legislation, all employers working with the state, including vendors and contractors, must implement a written policy addressing sexual harassment prevention and provide prevention training to all employees. This is an extension of a previously-existing law to include contracted workers, and means that employers may now be held liable for the sexual harassment of non-employees if the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassment and failed to take action. It does not, however, address the ambiguity around employees of elected officials.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group is recommending the definition of “employee” be changed to clearly include employees of elected and appointed officials, and that the New York State Human Rights Law should stipulate elected officials are also considered “employers.”

“Our recommendation is to specify employees as everybody -- essentially someone for hire -- this is how the labor law defines it and we just want every worker to have the same protection, including staff of elected officials,” Pasarell told Tuesday night’s event.

In the new legislation, New York employers are prohibited from requiring mandatory arbitration of claims of workplace sexual harassment, except where inconsistent with federal law, and this will come into effect in July.

Any officers and employees of the state or any public entity who is subject to a final judgement of personal liability in cases of sexual harassment will have to reimburse the state for the award given to the complainant, however the Sexual Harassment Working Group points out this is only applicable for cases determined by a judge, not necessarily to those settled out of court.

Cuomo’s legislation also states no employer has the authority to include or agree to include in any settlement a nondisclosure agreement, unless the condition of confidentiality is the complainant’s preference. And, notably, a model sexual harassment guidance document and a sexual harassment prevention policy is to be created with the Division of Human Right by October -- meaning a key portion of the new policy is not yet written.

“This year, Governor Cuomo signed the strongest anti-sexual harassment policy in the country,” Dani Lever, press secretary for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette in a statement. “It closed gaping loopholes that entrapped women in toxic workplaces, extended protections to contracted workers, and strengthened rules that prevent companies from shirking their responsibility to root out bad actors—instead of sweeping problems under-the-rug.”

On the surface, all measures included in the enacted budget appear to go a long way towards exactly what the governor is promising but, according to the panel of women who’ve experienced sexual harassment in state politics first-hand, there are some areas of ambiguity that impede the path to reporting and justice for potential victims.

First, the budget hasn’t defined “sexual harassment” and the way the issue is currently treated under state law leaves much room for interpretation. The Sexual Harassment Working Group recommends adding “sex and gender” to the list of classes protected from discrimination in the New York State Constitution, to offer another level of protection for all New Yorkers, including victims. And the authors suggest the current standard for behavior to qualify as sexual harassment in state law -- that it must be “severe or pervasive” -- be changed to mirror the recent changes to New York City law, where the standard for discrimination and harassment reads simply that the person is treated “less well.”

“When you’re talking about standards in law, the ‘litigative itch,’ as they call it, is all in these terms,” Kaiser said. “People are always going to bicker about the actual event that happened. We’d prefer that bickering to be asking, ‘didn’t he treat her less well?’ Rather than, ‘was it severe and pervasive?’”

The working group is also calling for an independent body to oversee all discrimination harassment policy enforcement. At the moment, JCOPE members are appointed by state elected officials. Of the 14 members, three are appointed by the Temporary President of the Senate, three are appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Senate, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Assembly, and six are appointed by the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor.

Many of the stories from the women in The Sexual Harassment Working Group involve some level of disbelief from those charged with investigating their reports of sexual harassment. In Crothers’ case, it wasn’t only disbelief, it was outright protection of her alleged attacker.

“Before it came out in the press and when I met with the speaker [Sheldon Silver], I didn’t feel he didn’t believe me, he just said ‘well I won’t let him go out to bars anymore and my first priority is protecting the institution,’” Crothers said at the panel event. Silver resigned as speaker in 2015 after being arrested on federal corruption charges, and long after being accused of facilitating former Assemblymember Lopez’s harassment of eight women who were on his staff. The panelists believe this culture of cover-up and protection will continue unless there is an independent body appointed to investigate, and determine, reports of sexual misconduct in Albany.

It’s the Lopez example that best shows the need for further restrictions around the use of nondisclosure agreements, beyond what is outlined in the new legislation. Two of the women in the working group, who were on the panel, ultimately signed nondisclosure agreements after accusing the former Assembly member of sexual harassment and groping. They said they didn’t want a nondisclosure agreement -- it wasn’t implemented to protect their privacy -- but it was offered to them as a ‘take it or leave it’ measure.

“We wanted an investigation, we asked multiple times for an investigation,” Hebert said. Hebert’s name went public, despite her having signed a nondisclosure agreement, when reports from other victims were published by the media ahead of Lopez’s resignation in 2013. Instead of an investigation, Hebert said she, along with Pasarell, were made to sign nondisclosure agreements and were told Lopez would go through sexual harassment prevention training.

“The NDA, it wasn’t just that...we couldn’t speak to anyone,” Hebert said. “It was, at first, $10,000 in liquidated damages if we broke it for every occurence, and it would happen with a mediator behind closed doors so no one would know they were enforcing the agreement. And it also contained a provision that we could never apply to the Assembly again.” This last measure effectively limiting their opportunities to work in state government, and the fine making it impossible for the complainants to explain their circumstances to future employers, file for unemployment benefits, or warn others or the Human Rights Division of Lopez’s behavior.  

They pushed back on their exclusion from the Assembly and the response was, “we could never apply to Lopez’s office again, which was fine, but they increased our liquidated damages cost to $20,000,” Hebert said.

Pasarell, another of Lopez’s victims, said the anti-sexual harassment legislation in the budget regarding nondisclosure agreements -- that they can only be used in cases where the complainant consents -- can too easily be twisted to benefit the harasser.

“The way they phrased the new law is for the complainant to have a nondisclosure agreement, it’s got to be the complainant’s preference. In our case we saw repeatedly how the Assembly portrayed it as if it was our preference when it absolutely was not,” she said. “The nondisclosure agreement came to us very late in the game and it was ‘take it or leave it.’”

Women reporting sexual harassment will be better assisted, The Sexual Harassment Working Group argues, if the Legislature provides greater protection against victim coercion into signing nondisclosure agreements. The group also recommends the law allow for individual liability, so harassers can be targeted without taking the Legislature or State to arbitration or court. And, in cases where complainants do want a nondisclosure agreement for confidentiality reasons, there should be a “Sunshine in Litigation” law to prevent serial harassers (who’ve offended at least once prior) from re-offending. “Limited information would be shared but a pattern of harassment would be outed,” Pasarell said.

The way to change the culture of sexual harassment and exploitation is through changing the law, The Sexual Harassment Working Group maintains, and the way to do that is through consulting with victims, advocacy groups, and others, including lawmakers -- a process much more extensive than how Cuomo and legislative leaders, all men, went about it.

In response to The Sexual Harassment Working Group’s report, Cuomo’s team said it will review the recommendations but gave no indication of whether or not they will consider holding or pushing for a public hearing on the issue.

“No woman should ever be violated, let alone in the workplace—period. And that’s why Governor Cuomo has championed measures that hold employers accountable for ensuring a hospitable workplace,” Lever, Cuomo’s press secretary, told Gotham Gazette. “The ‘Me Too’ movement has caused an awakening in our society, and while we’ve taken positive concrete steps in New York, we need to continue to see progress in our state and across the country. We look forward to reviewing these recommendations and continuing this important work.”

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Lopez allegedly harassed eight women on 33 counts, not 33 women; that two, not three, of the women mentioned signed NDAs; and that Kaiser reported Kellner's behavior to the Assembly counsel's office, not Speaker Silver directly.

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Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies Sun, 24 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000