Sexual harassment and the creation of systems to prevent and adjudicate complaints can be intensely political. The incidents usually involve people exercising power over the vulnerable. The targets are often afraid or ashamed to speak up.
When accusations are levied against lawmakers or others in government, those that control the system, the stakes rise even higher.
On Wednesday, former staff member Erica Vladimer accused Senate Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her outside an Albany bar two years ago. At the time, Vladimer worked for the IDC, the breakaway caucus that shares control of the State Senate with Republicans, essentially keeping the GOP in power. Vladimer is now a budget and policy analyst with the City of New York.
Vladimer never filed a complaint, and Klein says the incident never happened. So does Klein’s romantic partner, Sen. Diane Savino, who was at the bar that night, is a member of the IDC, and has one of the IDC’s three seats on the Senate Ethics Committee. That’s a graphic example of how futile it is to expect elected officials to monitor each other.
Klein is now asking that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics investigate. But J-COPE has never shown itself to be effective when power players are involved. To resolve harassment complaints, New York government needs a new system that is fair and independent.
In the Senate, complaints still go to chamber personnel, which can have a chilling effect. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan says he’s been working for months to improve the processes and increase training around both preventing and avoiding sexual harassment.
In 2013, then-Assemb. Vito Lopez was accused of sexually harassing two aides, who were then paid $545,000 in public money. Out of that came the realization that the Assembly reporting and investigating process, which started with the speaker’s office, terrified employees and protected politicians. That brought about reforms that include a well-publicized reporting and investigating process that is handled by an outside firm, but more can be done.
In November, a former state employee filed a lawsuit that accused Sam Hoyt, a former appointee of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, of paying $50,000 for her silence after sexually harassing her, and accusing Cuomo’s office of ignoring her complaints, which the administration denies. Cuomo has proposed a uniform code of sexual harassment policies for all branches of state government that would, among other things, increase accountability and prevent taxpayer funds from being used for harassment settlements.
Lawmakers, though, have a way of backing down on ethics laws that would govern their own behavior. That should not happen this time.