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Gov. Andrew Cuomo: No tax dollars for sexual harassment settlements

Governor Andrew Cuomo on on Tuesday proposed a

Governor Andrew Cuomo on on Tuesday proposed a ban on the use of taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment claims. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday proposed banning the use of taxpayer money to settle sexual-harassment claims involving all government entities and some private companies and to require public disclosure of the agreements.

Cuomo, a Democrat, unveiled the proposal as part of the lead up to his annual State of the State address here on Wednesday.

In his anti-sexual harassment initiative, Cuomo also suggested banning the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in employee contracts that are sometimes used by employers to avoid investigations and trials.

He also said companies that “do business with the state” should be required to disclose the number of sexual harassment adjudications and nondisclosure agreements they have executed.

Cuomo’s proposals largely mirror others previously advanced by state legislators. For example, Sen. Elaine Phillips (R- Flower Hill) introduced legislation in December to ban courts from accepting any settlements that include confidentiality agreements. Meanwhile, other states including California are considering similar bans.

But the governor’s backing does give the proposals extra weight as the legislative session begins Wednesday. Further, with little expected public opposition, lawmakers would appear poised to pass one or more of the proposals.

The governor cited the wave of sexual harassment complaints that have swept Hollywood, national politics, the news media, sports and other businesses.

“2017 brought a long overdue reckoning where the secret and pervasive poison of workplace sexual harassment was exposed by brave women and men who said this ends now,” Cuomo said in a statement.

“There must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment in any workplace, and we can and will end the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled harassment for far too long,” he said.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, it would be up to the victim to ask for the settlement to be confidential.

to the non-disclosure.

Phillips, whose legislation aims to ensure that contract and freelance employees are subject to sexual harassment laws, said lawmakers had an “obligation” to act.

“I think while we all talk about the stories that have come out in the past few months, the scariest thing is there are probably thousands more beyond this and we need to make sure we have legislation in place,” she said. “No one should ever be fearful of reporting sexual harassment.”

Albany has had several sexual-harassment scandals in the past five years.

In 2013, Vito Lopez of Brooklyn resigned just before he was about to be expelled from the state Assembly, after revelations that the state had paid $103,000 to two female staffers who accused him of harassment without public disclosure..

The case shone a light on the issue of nondisclosure clauses used in settlements regarding a variety of claims, including racial discrimination. The state doesn’t keep statistics on the number of such settlements or amounts paid.

In 2014, Buffalo-area Assemb. Dennis Gabryszak, a Democrat, resigned after female staffers in his office filed multiple complaints against him.

Cuomo’s proposals join a number of related measures already under discussion in Albany.

Senate Democrats have introduced measures to make state lawmakers personally liable for any sexual harassment claims and shield complainants from workplace retaliation.

“The abuse of confidentiality agreements enabled Harvey Weinstein and countless others to prey upon generations of women and conceal a culture of abuse,” Sen. Brad Holyman (D-Manhattan) said, referring to the Hollywood mogul. “It is time to restore the balance of power and give victims their voices back.”

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