Coming forward to report instances of sexual harassment in New York state’s capital is essentially to make oneself a pariah without actually getting to be free of the society that now fears, despises and disdains you.
Now, a group of women and men who have suffered this fate want to change the laws and make it safer for victims to report incidents, but they’ve found the most powerful people in Albany are more interested in a good headline than in making significant reforms. After rushing through changes to the state’s sexual harassment law, changes negotiated by three male legislative leaders, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared, “We put into place the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual-harassment protections in the nation.”
Leah Hebert, a former staffer of powerful Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, strongly disagrees.
“Saying New York has the strongest sexual harassment laws is a slap in the face to victims and anyone who works on the issue,” she told The Alt.
Conversations with multiple women who have come forward with claims of sexual impropriety against powerful New York state political figures paint a picture of an entire system that works to silence and intimidate anyone who dares to speak out.
For the seven members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group which came together earlier this year in reaction to negotiations over new sexual harassment laws, life has never returned to normal. They lost friends, some lost their jobs, some were forced or felt they had to leave state employment. Some of them, like Leah Hebert, still face the threat of legal action if they speak out, even though in Hebert’s case the man she says harassed her died in 2015.
Hebert is one of three members of the working group who were harassed by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a powerful Brooklyn legislator who harassed and assaulted at least eight female staffers over a number of years. The Legislative Ethics Commission fined Lopez $330,000–$10,000 for each of the 33 instances of harassment in 2013.
“I probably suffered more trauma in the aftermath of reporting than during the events themselves because of how it impacted my career, my personal life, my confidence and my self-worth,” said Hebert.
Rita Pasarell, who was also harassed by Lopez, recalls the NY Post running a story with the title “Vito Lopez staffers initially demanded $1.2 hush payout: sources” that featured a picture of her reaching into her purse.
Before Lopez’s harassment and the various settlements involving his behavior were was made public, Hebert says, she wanted an investigation but was instead told she had to accept a non-disclosure agreement and face $20,000 fines for each instance of speaking about the incident.
“I didn’t know there wouldn’t be an investigation until the end. I had 150 pages of notes, of evidence. But the investigation never came.” Both Pasarell and Hebert say representatives of the Assembly told reporters that the women did not want their accusations to be investigated.
Hebert describes watching as Lopez’s powerful allies tried to tar her as a “gold digger out to manipulate a good-hearted old man for cash.” She lost friends, she lost colleagues.
“People in the Assembly told my attorneys I was being sexually aggressive toward him [Lopez] even though he was old enough to be my grandpa and had two types of cancer. That set me back. It was so shocking after everything I went through in that office to then be accused of doing something wrong.”
The NY Post ran two stories about Hebert that framed her that way, labeling the ordeal as a “sex scandal” just as she started a new job. Hebert found that colleagues, friends, and even romantic interests had been warned not to associate with her lest they damage their careers in public service.
Pasarell says she believes she has lost a number of employment opportunities in public service because of her connection to Lopez.
None of this prevented Hebert and the rest of the group from trying to lend their very specific expertise to an effort to improve the state’s laws that deal with sexual harassment. When they were finally briefed on the latest budget negotiations, they were horrified by what they found, and again reminded that the powerful in Albany are not in a rush to give up their power.
Hebert noted that Assembly spokesperson Michael Whyland, who attacked her allegations and defended Lopez and then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is still the lead spokesperson for the body.
This year a package of sexual harassment law reforms was included in budget negotiations, notoriously presided over by the two male legislative leaders and the governor.
For a few years now, wheeling and dealing over the state budget has been done by four men in a room, the fourth being Sen. Jeff Klein, the leader of the now allegedly defunct Independent Democratic Conference, who left mainline Senate Democrats to create his own party and work with Senate Republicans in exchange for power. As budget negotiations started, Klein was faced with allegations from Erica Vladimer, a former staffer and now member of the working group, who said the senator forcibly kissed her outside an Albany bar late one night while celebrating the passage of the budget in 2015t. Klein called for an investigation into the allegation, as did Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But it is actually nearly impossible to know whether the Joint Commission on Public Ethics is investigating Vladimer’s case, and even if it were, experts say JCOPE simply isn’t equipped to investigate sexual harassment.
“My focus is on what I can control and making my own recommendations rather than finding out what I can about my own case. I didn’t have faith in the system in the first place. It’s why I didn’t report initially,” Vladimer told The Alt.
Vladimer recalled an initial conversation she had with a friend after the incident with Klein and being told, “If you go forward it will be your word against his. Your life will be over and his won’t.” Vladimer initially took that advice and decided not to come forward, but this year she decided she had to speak out. “My best friend is not speaking to me and I don’t know what the future holds. Doors have been closed to me that wouldn’t have been if I stayed quiet.”
Not only was the latest sexual harassment legislation negotiated by men but the negotiators included a man who was supposedly under investigation for inappropriate sexual contact with a subordinate. Things weren’t going well from the start. Then there were the actual details of the law.
“We realized not only are they not doing enough, they are actually going to do something harmful, they aren’t talking to experts or people who are going through the process,” said Hebert. “So we initially formed as damage control. We realized Albany was closing the window on progressive reforms in order to pass something quickly this election cycle so they could say they’ve done something related to #MeToo.”
Members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group and lawyers like Sarah Burger of Ianniello Anderson say what was being negotiated at the time they first got involved would actually have been regressive and, by limiting the definition of sexual harassment to being strictly “sexual” in nature rather than also about the abuse of power, would have made it harder for victims to seek justice.
During a recent panel discussion, Burger described that realization as her “head-exploding” moment.
The end result was not as bad as what was initially being debated, but Burger and Hebert say it does not go nearly far enough.
Last week, the Sexual Harassment Working Group issued a series of recommendations on how to improve the law. Those recommendations include creating an independently appointed commission on human rights, extending the statute of limitation on reporting harassment and making the burden of proof more “reasonable.” The group says lawmakers need to hear from victims in order to create effective legislation and a safe environment. They want the legislature to hold open and public hearings on sexual harassment.
On Monday, the Gotham Gazette quoted Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever as saying that the Cuomo administration will review the group’s recommendations.
“I’m glad they are going to be reviewing our recommendations, they are good and we like them but by their nature, they are incomplete. We know that there are problems with harassment in the executive branch and various agencies. What I don’t want is for the governor’s office to say ‘we’re reviewing’ but not look for more input. We need to have a full review of the system, that’s why we’re calling for hearings. We are offering one perspective of many,” said Pasarell.
Thinking of the sexual harassment issue in a strictly legislative sense is limiting. Victims note that in many cases their harassers had a hand in appointing the judges who ended up overseeing their case. Just last week the Senate approved the appointment of eight new judges to the Court of Claims, where sexual harassment cases generally are heard. One of those appointed was David Lewis, counsel to Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.
This appointment is concerning to advocates because of the way Senate Republicans reacted to Vladimer’s accusations against Klein. After the allegations were made, Flanagan immediately came to Klein’s defense and declared that his conference would not investigate. The Senate also updated its sexual harassment policy to add a warning that there would be consequences for those who brought false claims.
Hebert said that during her time in Lopez’s office she saw a culture that not only allowed Lopez’s behavior, but participated in it. “Members actually contributed to the hostile work environment. A lot of people see it and say nothing, but a lot of members and staff were playing along. So how is someone supposed to come forward when the options to report are tied to officials who are allied with the officials you are reporting against, when the courts are presided over by judges put in place by the same officials?”
While Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s facade as a champion of women’s rights was recently torn to shreds when multiple women came forward with accusations of assault, his work in the courtroom on behalf of the legislature has set a precedent that makes it harder for legislative staffers to seek redress for harassment.
The attorney general’s office and the Assembly have argued successfully in court that the Assembly is not technically the employer of legislative staffers who bring claims; instead, staffers work directly for the individual politicians.
With a heated gubernatorial race in progress, working group members say they are not as a group going to endorse any one candidate. Cynthia Nixon has been particularly critical of Cuomo’s handling of sexual harassment matters. The common refrain from the working group members The Alt spoke to is that they hold every legislator accountable for their position on sexual harassment legislation and their action, or lack thereof.
“The governor does have major influence,” said Vladimer, “That being said, every member should be held accountable for what they do, what they support and do not support. We need to know where they all stand as individuals. They shouldn’t just fall in line behind one man.”
For more on this subject watch this panel on sexual harassment laws.