Editorial

What does the Senate have to hide? A lot

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What does the Senate have to hide? A lot

Last year saw two major legislative leaders sentenced of corruption charges and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s closest advisors indicted in bribery schemes. So what did the Senate Republicans do on the first day of session in 2017? They advanced rules reforms to ban the use of any cell phones as a recording device in the chamber or in the ante-chamber where legislators routinely gladhand with lobbyists.

What do Senators have to hide? Well, putting it bluntly, a hell of a lot. On Wednesday as a colleague and I greeted a Democratic female Senator, a male Republican Senator approached her from behind. He began massaging her shoulders and declared her name adding “baby!” to the end. The female senator was put off but clearly familiar with the situation and it wasn’t exactly clear whether she was embarrassed to be put in the situation, or for the colleague who put her in it.

It’s the kind of high school locker room behavior that goes on quite commonly in the Senate.

In some work places this situation would be seen as sexual harassment. The male employee would be reprimanded, or at least pulled aside by a superior, but the legislature is not your typical workplace–not by a longshot.

Legislators should hold themselves to the highest of standards, after all they’ve taken an oath and sworn to represent voters to the best of their abilities. They should hold themselves above the norm.

A great deal of them do not.

Over the years I’ve spoken to scores of female staffers and legislators alike who say that their male colleagues continually get away with unacceptable behavior. Sen. Liz Krueger told me in 2013 that she routinely warns female interns about the how staffers and legislators may behave toward them. “I tell them, ‘Dress conservatively, don’t accept social invitations. I don’t care how big of a deal you think it is. If you ever have problems come to me.’”

But you don’t have to take my word for it, or even Krueger’s–just look at the contracts recently approved by Comptroller. They included $271,000 spent by both the Assembly and Senate to protect themselves from sexual harassment cases. The Senate was responsible for $121,000 in approved contracts. It is absolutely routine for the Comptroller’s office to sign off on hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts with law firms defending the legislature from sexual harassment claims–it happens every few months right under the taxpayer’s’ noses. Sexual harassment is not a partisan issue in Albany, it is very much a plague on both houses.

Am I saying the Senate’s new rule is designed to prevent people from videotaping incidents of sexual harassment? No. I’m saying that could be one of a plethora of reasons they want to do away with videotaping in and outside the chambers. Here are a few more: legislators routinely meet with lobbyists in the halls and some of those conversations aren’t fit for public consumption. The most controversial bills passed in the Senate routinely don’t see a vote until late at night when members are bleary eyed, incoherent and irritable. The votes get ugly, debate is actively discouraged, and members who do debate are routinely mocked by those who would rather go home than actually do their jobs and debate. Members who have actually read the bills tend up to bring up salient points about provisions buried deep in the bills.

Yes, there is a Senate feed that interested parties can watch, but it stays fixed and does not pick up surrounding debate and personal exchanges. It has also been turned off when things get ugly in the chamber–like in 2009 during the Senate coup. Senate officials have also ordered the public out of the gallery during sensitive votes.

Another thing those cell-phone cameras can and have captured? Legislators asleep at their desks, in the wee hours of the morning, because they’ve been ordered to be ready to vote as soon as their conference leaders and the Governor cut a backroom deal.

Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) took the new rule as an assault on civil liberties. “This in pure and simple terms is a violation of our free speech.I think it’s an insult to New Yorkers that we are curtailing an opportunity to bring transparency to this chamber.”

Senate Republicans said the rule is designed to protect “decorum” and keep legislators from speaking on their phones during votes.

It’s almost cute that “decorum” is something the Senate thinks it has to protect.

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