Albany’s Reckoning With Sexual Harassment Is Long Overdue
In February, Albany held its first hearing on sexual harassment since 1992, after Anita Hill thrust the issue into the national spotlight. Many women in that pre-hashtag era were inspired by Hill’s testimony to share their own painful stories. One was then Assembly member Earlene H. Hill, who said publicly that Assembly colleagues had harassed her on multiple occasions. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo praised Earlene Hill at the time for not naming her antagonists. By exercising restraint, he said, she “accomplished the purpose of educating the people to the differences that still exist for women, without perhaps destroying the career of some individuals who might very well be creditable, commendable people otherwise.”
New York’s governor is now Andrew Cuomo. In 2017, he scolded NPR reporter Karen DeWitt, telling her that sexual harassment is about “society,” not state government. In 2018, he and three male legislators, one of whom had been accused of forcibly kissing a staffer, pushed through a package of reforms denounced as inadequate by survivors of harassment. In January 2019, feeling crowded, he joked to reporters, “We need space, or I’ll bring you all up on charges under the Me Too movement.”
Cuomo also appointed Sam Hoyt, a former Assembly member who was disciplined for having an affair with an intern while in the Assembly, to the Empire State Development Corporation, a role in which Hoyt was later accused of sexual harassment by a different woman (the NYS Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), at which most commissioners are appointed by Cuomo and ten of 12 are men, cleared Hoyt). In 2018, Cuomo fired a high-ranking state official, James Kiyonaga—after years of complaints from Kiyonaga’s female colleagues, many of whom said they faced retaliation for complaining.
New York’s executive branch, in other words, hasn’t made much progress on sexual harassment since 1992. Fortunately for women, its state legislature has. In January, a new class of young, progressive legislators including Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar swept into office. They joined colleagues like Sen. James Skoufis, 31, who served in the Assembly since 2012 and was elected to the State Senate in 2018, and Assembly member Catalina Cruz, who was elected in 2018. In 2009, the legislature had just ten legislators under 35 and three women legislators under 40. Today, there are 28 legislators under 35 and 18 women legislators under 40. And they are pushing to rid Albany of sexual harassment once and for all.
Their first move was to schedule a long-overdue public hearing on Wednesday, February 13. It started at 10am, lasted for 11 hours, eight minutes, and 16 seconds, and revealed a great deal about what has changed in Albany—as well as what hasn’t. Two of the hearing’s co-chairs, Michele Titus and Marcos Crespo, and a number of legislators who attended, were all working in Albany during the tenure of disgraced former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. As Speaker of the Assembly from 1994 to 2015, Silver authorized a secret payment to settle a harassment claim against former Assembly member and serial sexual harasser Vito Lopez and defended his former counsel, J. Michael Boxley, after Boxley was accused of rape by two different women.
Boxley has since been placed on the state’s sex-offender registry, Silver is a convicted felon, and Lopez is dead. Yet Albany’s sexual harassment problem persists. According to a 2018 Politico investigation, more than 1,000 people have complained of sexual harassment in New York State government entities since 2012, and taxpayers have paid at least $6.4 million to settle sexual harassment and gender discrimination cases in that period. On a recent trip to Albany, I spoke with a number of women in their thirties who shared stories about the behavior of men they encountered in professional settings that ranged from undermining to humiliating. One told me she is often addressed as “young woman” in business meetings. Sometimes, she said, a man she is meeting with will grab her hand, ostensibly to get her attention, and hold onto it long enough to make her uncomfortable.
Cruz described unsavory encounters with the client of a lobbyist when she was a staffer. The lobbyist would “make unseemly remarks about my looks and ask, ‘Are you married?,’” she recalled. Because she was then chief of staff to a powerful city councilmember, she said, she was “lucky enough, and felt empowered enough, to say, ‘This is inappropriate; check yourself.’” She paused. “But what if you’re not?” That’s why she is introducing bills to hold private entities accountable for failing to act when an employer knows of bad behavior; hold employers accountable for protecting employees from harassment by non-employees, e.g., lobbyists; and prevent lobbyists from lobbying government officials if they are found to have engaged in sexual harassment.
Besides being newly elected (and unbeholden to Sheldon Silver), a number of legislators who led or attended the hearing are also survivors of sexual violence. During discussion of the Child Victims Act, which passed on January 28, Biaggi and colleagues Cruz, Rodneyse Bichotte, and Yuh-Line Niou revealed that they had been sexually abused as children. Salazar said in a statement during her campaign that she had been sexually assaulted by David Keyes, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was clear that their own experiences colored their reaction to survivors’ testimony; they demonstrated more compassion, outrage, and intensity of feeling than many of their colleagues.
Roberta Reardon was the hearing’s first witness. Reardon, a Cuomo appointee, is New York State’s labor commissioner; she spoke and answered questions for two hours and 22 minutes. Reardon’s last-minute addition to the program was seen by some as evidence of Cuomo’s desire to delay survivors’ testimony. Thanks to Biaggi, Salazar, and Skoufis, who, according to Salazar, revised the order of witnesses midway through the hearing, members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group of former legislative employees who experienced or reported sexual harassment in recent years, were able to testify before the day’s end, along with a few others. Still, as the hearing wore on, many witnesses and attendees had to leave. Cuomo appointee-turned-Cuomo critic Patricia Gunning, one of the women who said she was retaliated against after reporting Kiyonaga, was not called to testify until 10 hours and 30 minutes into the hearing. Elizabeth James, a fast food worker who was scheduled to testify, had to leave to pick up her child—which meant that the survivors who were able to deliver their testimony in person were white-collar office workers.
At one point, Reardon praised hearings for inspiring workers to “have enough respect for themselves to be able to say, ‘I don’t appreciate that, please stop.’” But as survivors explained in their testimony, the obstacles they faced in reporting harassment were structural, institutional, and unrelated to a lack of self-respect. The process for reporting sexual harassment in New York State, particularly when it’s committed by state officials, is confusing, opaque, and corruptible: there are multiple agencies with which survivors can file complaints, all of which lack meaningful enforcement mechanisms and none of which are truly independent from the governor or the legislature.
Seth Agata, Executive Director of JCOPE, one of the groups to which victims are directed, said as much at the hearing: “What we can’t do, and it’s the way the Public Officers Law is written—it is not a victims-oriented law. It’s a guide to how public officers act with respect to their public trust. If an individual is looking for recompense, is looking to be made whole because of a wrong, we can’t do that…we cannot seek back wages, we cannot seek a penalty…We’re not geared for it, and the law doesn’t permit it.”
Sen. Liz Krueger has introduced a bill that would “replace JCOPE and the LEC [Legislative Ethics Commission] with a single, truly independent enforcement agency…to deter corruption in the legislative and executive branches of state government.” While optimistic that the hearing will eventually yield key reforms, Krueger told me in a phone conversation that because her bill involves amending the state constitution, it will take time to pass and implement.
“I hope it’s the start of a reckoning,” Skoufis told me an hour before the hearing began. “We made some reforms last year. The governor has proposed some more reforms in his budget. Ironically, some of the same reforms we tried to pass last year, and that he objected to…Any objective person who looks at Albany knows that [sexual harassment] is a scourge.”
Twenty-seven years after Albany’s last sexual harassment hearing, it’s time for Skoufis and his colleagues to finish reckoning.