Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2369 Fri, 28 Feb 2020 01:40:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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.”

***
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
Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7286-amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7286-amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning Cuomo Sheldon Silver Skelos Albany

Gov. Cuomo, Sheldon Silver & Dean Skelos in 2012 (photo via The Governor's Office)


As allegations of sexual harassment and assault against disgraced movie producer and major Democratic political donor Harvey Weinstein piled up earlier this month, women around the world took to social media to share stories of abusive behavior using the hashtag #MeToo.

The light being shone on the predatory behavior of Weinstein and many others resonated at statehouses across the United States, from California to Rhode Island, where women in politics have been speaking out about sexual misconduct they experienced first-hand or witnessed, with victims including legislators, young staffers and interns, lobbyists, and others.

In New York’s capital, the response has been more muted, in part because the Legislature is not currently in session, but also because Albany was recently forced to face its own mishandling of sexual misconduct scandals. As recently as 2014, the aftermath of a debacle around sexual harassment by Assemblymember Vito Lopez, which led to his forced resignation from the Assembly, produced a number of significant reforms to how harassment, misconduct, and discriminatory behavior are addressed in the state Assembly.

Now, three years later and amid a national reckoning with issues related to sexual misconduct, women in state government who spoke to Gotham Gazette noted an improvement in the Albany culture since these reforms, but say that sexist attitudes and behavior continue to plague New York state government.

While several female legislators were hesitant to speak on the record about their own experiences with sexual harassment, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa spoke frankly about her own experiences with sexism in the political sphere at a recent forum organized by Berkeley College in Manhattan. She described one incident, a decade ago, when on a conference call, it was announced that she would take the lead on a project. A man on the line, who is now a national leader in progressive politics, according to DeRosa, joked, “She can take the lead right up to my hotel room,” apparently unaware that DeRosa was on the line.

“These instances have stuck with me, but I'm not kidding myself and neither should you — many women have and still do experience far worse every day, and it's not just actresses you're reading about in the news this week,” she said, according to a transcript distributed by the governor’s office.

Calling for “societal course correction,” DeRosa encouraged young women in all industries to speak out.

The statement was a powerful one coming from DeRosa, who at 34 became the youngest person and first woman to be named Secretary to the Governor, the top aide to the state’s most powerful government official, when she was appointed to the post by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Days after DeRosa’s remarks, a former top official in Cuomo’s administration came forward with allegations that her former boss sexually harassed staffers, saying she was inspired by DeRosa’s remarks, according to The New York Post.

Patricia Gunning, who had recently resigned as the special prosecutor/inspector general of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, told The Post that she faced retaliatory violence for calling out her boss for his behavior.

“My hope is that this conversation will be the beginning of a new era in [how] these issues are addressed by employers,” Gunning told The Post.

On Monday, it was revealed that Sam Hoyt, a former assemblyman and Cuomo ally who ran Buffalo area projects for the state's Empire State Development Corporation, had abruptly resigned to take a job in the private sector. By Tuesday afternoon, Hoyt, who was disciplined by the Assembly in 2009 for an affair with 19-year-old intern, was accused by a former state employee of pressuring her into a romantic relationship. She told The Buffalo News that she was paid $50,000 for her silence.

In a statementCuomo spokesperson Dani Lever acknowledged that allegations of misconduct had emerged against Hoyt and that an investigation was underway.

"All state employees must act with integrity and respect," the statement read. "When the complainant made these allegations, they were immediately refered to the  Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER) for an investigation."

After GOER determined there were grounds for further review, the matter was referred to the Inspector General's Office, and later, the Joint Commission of Public Ethics (JCOPE), according to the statement. Hoyt maintains that the relationship was consentual, according to The Buffalo News.

But while to this point there has not been a new public outcry at the New York Legislature, female lawmakers say that the Weinstein scandal and its fallout have struck a chord and sparked private conversations about their early experiences in Albany and how they can best aid young female staff aides and legislators.

One such conversation occurred at a retreat for the Women’s Legislative Caucus in Saratoga two weeks ago, where women shared uncomfortable incidents they had experienced early in their careers and discussed how they could better unify when scandals occur, according to Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo area lawmaker who chairs the Women’s Caucus. One thing agreed upon, Peoples-Stokes said, was that the Assembly’s sexual harassment enforcement could be enhanced by a mentorship program for incoming members and their aides.

“We wanted to see if there is anything we can do in addition to ensure that we never need to have these experiences again,” said Peoples-Stokes. “It is something that we decided we are going to do as women of the Legislature, and you know, when women decide to do something, we get it done.”

While the Assembly reforms appear to have improved the culture in the 150-seat chamber, Albany’s sexual harassment problem has not disappeared. The Senate and the Assembly have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years on outside counsel to investigate sexual harassment complaints. The Assembly’s ethics committee -- which exists solely to enforce policy on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation -- convened a meeting in executive session on October 12 and is expected to meet again on November 2. The matter at hand is not clear.

Currently reported to be under investigation by JCOPE and the Erie County District Attorney’s office is Senator Marc Panepinto, a Democrat from Buffalo, who announced he would not seek reelection last year amid rumors of sexual harassment. Also last year, the Senate paid out $121,000 for two contracts with Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP “for legal counsel related to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission matters and investigation of sexual harassment claims.”

Assembly members who spoke with Gotham Gazette acknowledged the body’s embarrassing history of dismissing sexual misconduct claims internally, which has led to a slew of unflattering headlines in 2012 and 2013, but noted that an influx of female legislators to the Assembly in recent years has also helped to reshape the culture. At the Senate, such scandals and its culture of protecting those in power has not drawn the same scrutiny.

Last week, New York’s chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) made an effort to further jumpstart the conversation, calling on women and men who currently or previously work(ed) in government in Albany and throughout the state to speak out about their personal experiences with sexual harassment or assault while on the job, citing the Legislature’s history of quashing sexual harassment complaints.

“Government sets the standard and the policies and the laws that all other industries are asked to uphold,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women - New York, said in a statement. “Given that Albany is a place where lawmakers have abused their power and sexual harassment has gone unchecked in the past, we felt it was important to give women in politics a platform to speak up.”

The women’s advocacy organization has announced the creation of a new, dedicated hotline for individuals in government to report their experiences (people can call 518-362-7857 or submit a story online at nownys.org).

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Ossorio said the goal is to build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. The hotline will provide independent counsel and resources to victims while also assessing how effective recent policies have been, she said.

“We immediately thought about the culture that has existed in Albany and we wanted to be able to empower women who work in politics, particularly young women and interns who head to their internships idealistic and wanting to be part of American government and are disillusioned by it,” she said. “We really want to know to what degree the environment of sexual harassment has been uprooted.”

The personal stories tumbling out of statehouses around the nation are eerily familiar to anyone who has closely watched New York state government in recent years. In California, women leaders in government have formed a campaign called “We Said Enough,” sharing stories about how they have endured groping, inappropriate comments about their bodies and abilities, and insults and jokes that diminish them professionally. In some cases, “men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like,” wrote the group on a website created for women to submit their stories.

An open letter circulated by members of the Illinois Legislature drew a direct comparison between the Weinstein scandal and the coercive situations in which women in government find themselves and had drawn 130 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, the AP reported.

"Every industry has its own version of the casting couch," reads the letter. "Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry."

Albany, which has historically been referred to as the New York’s own “sin city,” is no stranger to such scandals. Repeatedly, a series of particularly egregious complaints of sexual harassment or rape has led the Legislature to a watershed moment of sorts, producing much-needed reform in how accusers are treated and how their complaints are handled.

A major turning point for the Assembly occurred in 2004, when, roiling from a series of rape accusations against Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell IV and Michael Boxley, chief counsel to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, its leadership decided to bar members of the Legislature from fraternizing with interns.

In the state Senate, a somewhat similar soul-searching happened, but at the time many of its members were strongly opposed to the idea of an intern-fraternization ban.

In comparison to the 150-seat Assembly, sex scandals in the 63-seat Senate have unfolded more discreetly -- hinted at through money spent on lawyers or a senator or a top aide leaving the job abruptly amid rumors -- and as a result the body’s leadership has not been forced to publicly reckon with its record in the same way, according to Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who was instrumental in compelling the Senate to implement a mandatory sexual harassment training program.

A decade ago, Krueger said she was privy to two incidents involving interns who were molested by older male senators. One incident occurred in a packed elevator and Krueger famously threatened to kick the senator if he touched an intern again. The other time she learned of a sexual assault claim when she found a young staffer crying outside a senator’s office at the Capitol.

After the second incident, Krueger, who is known for her bluntness on the topic, said she urged then-Senate Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican from the Capital Region, to create mandatory sexual harassment training for all senators. When she threatened to hold a press conference naming and shaming the offending senators, Bruno, who later stepped down from the leadership role amid his own public corruption scandal, responded he would hold a competing press conference naming Democratic senators.

The way Krueger tells it, she said, “I didn't tell you [what] party this senator is in. I don't give a damn what party they are. We can do a joint press conference, and we all can name names. I don't give a [expletive].” To which Bruno responded, “OK, OK, we'll do mandatory sexual harassment training,” Krueger told The Albany Times Union.

The training became mandatory for senators and staff members and the regulations were clearly stated in a written document.

It was not the last time Krueger took her colleagues in the Legislature to task over crimes against women. In June 2003, when Boxley was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs, having been accused of rape for the second time, Krueger said she had a very public confrontation with Assemblymember Lopez, who a decade later would be toppled by his own slew of sexual harassment scandals. They were scheduled, coincidentally, to hold a joint press conference in front of the Legislative Correspondents Association office. According to Krueger, the Assembly member fumed, “How dare they come over here and arrest our counsel in our house?”

“I said ‘excuse me, he was tried with rape,’ pause, ‘for the second time,’ pause,” Krueger recalled to Gotham Gazette, “‘It seems to me that if you have anything to say publicly about this, it's let justice be fair and swift. Otherwise, I think you should keep your mouth shut.'”

Lopez’s Assembly colleagues later told her that she had made an enemy for life. “I said, ‘Good. Some enemies are worth having,’” said Krueger of the former Brooklyn Democratic boss, who lost a City Council race in 2013 and died in November 2015.

Still, Krueger acknowledges that the current sexual harassment policy in the Senate does not encourage women to come forward. “I’d like to believe the written policies the Senate came up with and mandatory training might have helped in some small way,” she told Gotham Gazette last week.

In 2014, following a series of sexual misconduct scandals involving Lopez, Assemblymember Micah Kellner, and Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak, the Assembly officially changed its policy on sexual harassment, which had last been updated in 2009. In the past, sexual harassment complainants would typically report the incidents to the speaker’s office or the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), but it was up to the discretion of the speaker’s counsel whether to investigate the complaints.

When it was revealed that Speaker Silver did not follow protocol and report misconduct allegations by two staff members against Assemblymember Lopez to the ethics body, instead cutting a secret $103,000 settlement with the women, Silver publically apologized for the lapse and announced that the Assembly would review its practices.

To help restructure the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, the Assembly’s ethics committee enlisted CUNY Law School Professor Merrick Rossein, an attorney, law professor, and expert in discrimination litigation. Through interviews with women in the Assembly, Rossein made a series of recommendations to the bipartisan legislative task force that was convened to address deficiencies in the Assembly’s policy.

“There are a number of things in this policy that I’m very proud of that I’d like to see in every sexual harassment policy, including the private sector,” said Rossein, who has since been retained by the Assembly as an outside counsel to investigate complaints against members, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Recommendations made by Rossein include the appointment of an outside investigator to look into complaints; a guarantee of confidentiality for accusers; severe consequences for an employer that retaliates against a complainant; and more. Most importantly, a lawmaker accused of harassment is barred from talking to the accuser until a designated time. Additionally, lawmakers were made mandatory reporters, required to inform the ethics committee about sexual misconduct if they see it or hear about it -- a component women say has had a dramatic impact on the culture in Albany. A hotline has been set up for people to submit tips.

The Assembly policy outlines two types of harassment, hostile work environment harassment — which is directed at somebody based on their sex, would be considered offensive by a reasonable person, and is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with one’s work environment — and quid-pro-quo harassment, the type described by victims of Weinstein, in which professional opportunities are offered in exchange for sexual favors.

In response to the barrage of corruption and sexual harassment scandals over the last decade, the Legislature has also dramatically revamped the way it approaches its ethics and sexual harassment training, according to Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County and former chair of the Assembly’s ethics committee. Not only are class sizes smaller, according to Lavine, but they have gone from obligatory and dry, to dynamic, thought-provoking, and interactive.

“We have gone from the days when it was almost an obligation to provide -- or what seemed to be at the time -- ethics training that was done in large groups of people,” said Lavine in a January interview with Gotham Gazette. “And while it was content-specific and good, it was not nearly so effective as the modern approach, which is to work with smaller groups of individuals in an interactive environment.”

Still, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to rectify inequities for women and in Albany. It likely doesn’t help that those at the top of Albany’s power chain are all men. Many have pushed for Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County legislator who has led Senate Democrats since 2012 and is the first woman or person of color to lead a legislative conference, to be included at the negotiating table during budget and other high-level talks. Currently, the state’s $150 billion-plus budget is largely hammered out by four men: Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which forms a ruling coalition with the Republican conference. Democrats hope that the 2018 state-level elections and an agreement with the IDC will lead to Stewart-Cousins becoming the leader of a new Senate majority.

Having more women in the Legislature would go a long way towards creating a safer space for female employees at all levels of government, according to Stewart-Cousins.

“The most disturbing thing is that almost every woman has a story regarding harassment or worse,” said Stewart-Cousins, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is true in every walk of life and unfortunately true in government. Only by confronting sexism and gender bias head-on will we be able to truly create a culture which respects everyone equally. We need to support women and pro-women candidates for office and energize pro-women New Yorkers to get out and vote.”

An increase in the number of women in Albany has helped reshape the culture from an old boys' club, in which women were largely relegated to secretarial positions, to a more egalitarian environment, where women are not only elected to office, but have risen to acquire key chair positions in both houses and led the passage of women-friendly legislation.

Assemblymember Nily Rozic, who became the youngest woman in the state Legislature and the first woman ever to represent Queens’ 25th District when she was elected in 2012, said she has watched the culture transform since she began her tenure in Albany as an aide to Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh.

“It’s certainly gotten better since I was a legislative staffer, but we have a long way to go. The underlying change that’s happening is that more women are getting elected to the Legislature and that really positively affects our work place,” said Rozic.

Aside from the most serious cases of sexual assault and rape, it’s often sexual comments and diminishing jokes -- such as the one described by DeRosa -- or an extra-long hug that makes the state Legislature a treacherous place for young women.

Alexis Grenell, a political strategist and commentator on feminist issues, said the comment described by DeRosa is a quintessential example of how women are verbally undermined in the workplace.

“The harassment that Melissa described is fundamentally dehumanizing,” said Grenell. “There is nothing benign about it. It’s meant to take away her worth as a thinking, contributing person in a professional environment and renders her the sum total of her physicality and sex appeal. That is dehumanizing. It’s not why she’s on the call.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, in an interview with Gotham Gazette, recalled her first years as a legislative staffer in Washington, D.C. and as chief of staff to Assemblymember Ron Kim, of Queens. She said that when she first arrived in Albany, Kim warned her not to get into elevators with “the wrong people.” Later, she learned that she had been named on a “hot or not” list that had been circulating among male staffers at the Legislature.

“People would stop me in the hallway and say ‘you are just so exotic,’ but you know I’m not going to report them for it,” said Niou, who was elected to Silver’s old Assembly seat in 2016. “It’s just an ignorant and not very thoughtful comment.”

These types of incidents collectively create a hostile environment that women internalize and come to see as normal, she said.

“Over time, I’ve built this protective shell, like ‘oh these things are just going to bounce right off of me,’ but these things happen every day,” said Niou. “Somebody insists a kiss on the cheek -- like forces it -- but everyone kisses on the cheek, all over Albany people do the kiss-kiss thing.”

The cheek kiss, which is often reserved for women in political settings, falls into a bit of a grey area, but many women in government have observed the greeting often provides an opportunity for hands to roam. The Assembly’s newest sexual harassment policy warns that touching -- including brushing against the body, squeezing, hugging, massaging or patting -- may fall under the category of sexual harassment, but that has not ended the practice.

Grenell, who frequently holds press conferences at the Capitol, said to bypass the double kiss, she initiates a handshake by extending her arm as far away from her body as possible.

A similar strategy is deployed by one Pennsylvania lawmaker, who at a recent women-led panel in the state, explained how she avoids the cheek kiss -- by placing one hand on her colleague’s shoulder, and the other outstretched for a handshake, according to an account by a journalist covering the Harrisburg Capitol in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Albany veterans say they have grown accustomed to awkward and demeaning daily experiences.

"I've been saying for the last 15 years: Every week, I drive three hours north and 30 years back in history in regards to how we treat women," said Senator Krueger, of Manhattan.

With women across all industries, including government, empowered by the Weinstein blowup and its ripples to speak out about their experiences, Krueger said she would not be surprised if it led to another watershed moment in Albany.

“I would suspect in the New York State Legislature, like so many other places -- where you have men in powerful positions and young women who might not have a lot of worldly experience, who think these are very important men,” she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out.”

Update: The story has been updated with allegations about former EDC official Sam Hoyt that emerged Tuesday afternoon.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? Tue, 31 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000