ALBANY — New Yorkers have paid more than $10 million over the last nine years to settle 88 cases of sexual harassment, discrimination, and related cases in state government, almost all of which were brought by women reporting groping, come-ons and demeaning treatment.
All but five of the cases were brought by women alleging “gender discrimination, discrimination based on sexual orientation, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and /or sexual assault,” according to the records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law.
The attorney general’s office records do not break down the cases by specific categories of offense because they are all related to harassment, discrimination and abuse based on gender and all were brought under the same federal civil rights law. Many cases include several different kinds of offenses.
“That’s an absolutely shocking number,” said state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who has for years been outspoken on the sexual harassment issue. She said the Senate Democratic conference is working on bills that limit the cost to taxpayers of these settlements, while also making sure victims can be fairly compensated and not lose their jobs.
“There is a culture in this town that I have observed and find very disturbing,” Krueger said. “Young people come to the Capitol, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they think that legislators or people who work very high up in government are somehow godlike . . . and that if they are paid special attention this somehow makes them special or could be helpful to their own careers.
“They find themselves through their own naïvete and youth in terrible situations and they don’t know how to handle it and they don’t know they can come forward,” said Krueger, who has counseled several women in state government who said they were sexually harassed. “They think, ‘It’s just the way things happen here.’ ”
Other state legislators on both sides of the aisle were surprised by the amount of public money spent on the settlements.
“That number is extremely large and troublesome,” said Assemb. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers).
The state’s first and only woman legislative leader was also surprised by the cost of settlements.
“Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to pay for the actions of bad actors,” said Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers).
Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) said he had “no concept” that that amount of state money was spent on settlements. He said abuses might better be stopped if perpetrators had to pay those settlements.
“The issue is definitely a problem,” DeFrancisco said of sexual harassment and related offenses against women. “You have to change the behavior and you change the behavior by making people responsible for their actions.”
Fifteen cases among the settlements were against the Department of Corrections and resulted in more than $2.5 million in settlements. Among the rest, three were against Stony Brook University Hospital, two against the State University of New York at Old Westbury, one was at SUNY Farmingdale and 10 were against the City University of New York, according to the records.
In each settlement, state officials denied wrongdoing. In many cases, the employee accused of the misconduct paid a smaller part of the settlement. For example, in one Department of Corrections case, the state paid out $333,333 and an individual named as a defendant paid $333, the record stated.
Last week, state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), leader of the Independent Democratic Conference that shares power with Republicans in the State Senate, confirmed that the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics is investigating a sexual harassment claim against him. A former staffer has accused him of forcibly kissing her on March 31, 2015, outside an Albany bar during a night of celebration. Klein denies the accusation and had asked JCOPE to open an investigation.
The former staffer, Erica Vladimer, said in a statement she posted on Facebook that “Sadly, my experience with sexual harassment in Albany was more insidious than this one moment in time with this one man.”
In his State of the State speech this month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called for 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 settlements.
“No taxpayer funds should be used to pay for any public official’s sexual harassment or misconduct — period,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo counsel Alfonso David said the administration issued an order in 2011 that “any supervisor that received a complaint, whether formal or informal, whether written or aural, has an obligation to report it.”
The records obtained by Newsday through the state attorney general’s office, which represents the state in court settlements, show two cases in the State Legislature. One was the $545,000 settlement stemming from sexual harassment charges against then-Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) and the leader who handled the once-secretive case, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Lopez was forced from the legislature after the scandal, and Silver lost his seat when he was accused in an unrelated federal corruption case, which is being retried this year.
In the other case, a former State Senate majority employee and a former local official was accused of “sexually oriented physical contact, gestures, threats and unwanted exposure to pornographic materials” in a 2009 lawsuit allgeging misconduct toward a woman staffer in the Senate’s Buffalo office. The Senate majority office settled the case for $75,000 in 2012, the record stated.
The vast majority of cases, however, involved workers in prisons, colleges, hospitals and in other state workplaces.
The largest payout among the 88 total cases involved a woman who said she faced years of abusive comments that were mostly ignored by superiors, until one of them urged her to file a complaint.
Corrections Officer Penny T. Collins said she was repeatedly targeted by vulgar comments and talk by other security officers about their genitals and sex habits, records stated. The Department of Corrections settled the case in 2013 for a total of $732,837, the largest single settlement in the records.
In another case, Lesley Shiner, a clerical worker at the State University of New York at Buffalo, accused a former dean of sexually harassing her and groping her at a holiday party in 2010.
Shiner said she sought assistance, at one point mouthing among the laughter and cheers, “Please help me.” She said she told her supervisor, “You won’t respect me in the morning,” to which she said he replied, “Lesley, I don’t respect you now,” according to the court complaint.
She received a $225,000 settlement in 2013, the records showed.
In 2010, Kathleen Nally was hired to a training agency at the Division of Parole. She said her supervisor routinely greeted women employees with, “Hey, gorgeous” and called her “his Vanna White,” referring to the TV game show model. She stated in court records that a boss told her, “Your body reminds me of a parking ticket, because it has fine written all over it.”
She also said male workers were treated better than women, which she realized when she had trouble receiving time off to care for her hospitalized husband.
She received $70,000 in a 2012 settlement, the records showed.