ALBANY – Dennis Gabryszak resigned from the Assembly on Sunday, a month after allegations surfaced that portrayed him as a serial sexual harasser of female members on his staff.
Gabryszak, 62, quit just 24 hours before members of the Assembly were set to begin their first full day of the 2014 legislative session this afternoon. That gathering had promised to be a tense one for Gabryszak, given the number of colleagues who had publicly called on him to resign if the allegations against him were true.
Gabryszak’s name now joins the list of dozens of lawmakers and state officials to leave office under a cloud in the past decade or so, whether after being arrested or convicted in a hodgepodge of corruption scandals or for some kind of sexually inappropriate behavior, including harassment of female staff members.
The departure by Gabryszak leaves the residents of the 143rd District – which includes Cheektowaga, the town of Lancaster and the villages of Depew, Lancaster and Sloan – without a representative in the Assembly at a time when annual state budget deliberations are about to begin that will decide everything from how much local public schools receive in state aid to the level of funds available for economic development efforts.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday did not indicate if he will call a special election to fill the vacant Gabryszak seat, which could mean there might not be another election to replace the lawmaker until November. In that case, 143rd District residents would be without a voice in the Assembly until January 2015.
There are now 10 seats vacant in the Legislature for various reasons – mostly because lawmakers left for other elected offices – and Cuomo does not rush to call special elections.
Cuomo, in a statement, noted how he had called on Gabryszak to deny the allegations or resign.
“He has given us his answer. Our representatives in elected office can and should be held to a higher standard – especially at a time when the Legislature’s ethics are being questioned and the confidence of their constituents being undermined. This kind of alleged behavior has no place in New York State government or any other office in society. My thoughts are with the alleged victims and Mr. Gabryszak’s family during this difficult time,” Cuomo said.
Had he remained in office, Gabryszak, who stayed publicly silent over the past month as a steady stream of court filings were released containing allegations of sexual harassment, was facing an uncertain future in Albany. The Assembly ethics committee has been investigating the allegations, and, depending on its findings, could have prodded his colleagues to try to expel him from office.
In a written statement Sunday, Gabryszak said there was “never any intent on my part” to sexually harass any members of his staff, and he denied allegations that he ever made any request that “sexual contact should occur.” He said there was no sexual contact with staffers and that some of the allegations made against him are “demonstrably false.”
“There was mutual banter and exchanges that took place that should not have taken place because it is inappropriate in the workplace even if it does not constitute sexual harassment,” he said.
Nonetheless, Gabryszak said he is resigning because of the impact the scandal has had on his family “and my concern for the important work of the Assembly.” He said it would have been “foolish” for him to have commented before Sunday because the last of the allegations were made public only last week.
Gabryszak thanked supporters who reached out to him the past month. “I have learned who my true friends are,” he said.
Terrence Connors, the lawmaker’s Buffalo attorney, said the terms of exactly when his resignation is effective were still being worked out Sunday with the Assembly. But he said Gabryszak would not show up in Albany today for the first full day of the 2014 session.
If he had returned, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver would have been under growing pressure by Democrats to take action against Gabryszak, who might have seen hits on everything from the size of his staff to his office space and would almost certainly have been frozen out of the Democratic conference.
Connors said he believes the resignation ends the Assembly’s ethics committee investigation of the allegations made against Gabryszak. “It’s a jurisdictional issue at this point,” he said of the committee’s role over current members of the Legislature.
While the Assembly ethics committee’s jurisdiction may be over, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state’s umbrella watchdog agency for all public employees, could still investigate Gabryszak for a year after he leaves office to determine if he abused the public officers law.
One of the women who alleged Gabryszak sexually harassed her said the lawmaker’s resignation will have no impact on her pursuit of a civil case against him. Six other female accusers also have filed a notice of claim.
“The train has left the station, and he will be able to defend himself against our complaints,” said Kristy Mazurek, who served as the lawmaker’s communications director in 2008 and 2009.
Beyond that, she declined to comment on Gabryszak’s resignation or his denials. “My complaint speaks for itself, and it’s an ongoing investigation,” Mazurek said.
Lawyers for the other women who made the allegations did not immediately return calls for comment.
Informed of Gabryszak’s announcement, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo said the decision by her fellow Democrat was the right one.
“I think that’s an honorable decision because it is hard on his family, and it is hard for the Legislature, and it’s also very difficult for his constituents,” she said.
Silver, the speaker who was politically dented last year for secretly settling two sexual harassment cases against a former Brooklyn assemblyman, called the allegations against Gabryszak “extremely disturbing.”
“As I have stated from the start, sexual harassment has no place in the State Assembly and it will not be tolerated. Mr. Gabryszak’s decision to resign his Assembly seat is the right one,” Silver said Sunday.
Another fellow Democrat said the decision is good news for Gabryszak’s constituents and the institution of the Legislature.
“If you’re an elected representative, it’s not about you, and if it becomes about you and a scandal then that individual should step aside for the good of the people they represent,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat.
Ryan believes the Assembly has also learned the lessons of lawmakers who are involved in wrongdoing, ethical lapses or sexual harassment.
“It’s pretty clear that the public expects the institution to take a greater role in policing its members,” he said.
The allegations against Gabryszak, made by seven former female staffers, most of whom were in their 20s when they worked for him, came last year during the height of widespread publicity about the separate sexual harassment case involving a then-powerful assemblyman from Brooklyn.
The allegations included everything from sexual advances on staff members by the lawmaker, who has been married for 37 years, to pressure that female staffers stay overnight with him at his apartment or hotel rooms. The women allege he urged them to go to massage parlors with him, that he told them to dress in sexy outfits, regularly made comments about their appearance and offered up descriptions about his body parts. The women say they also felt threatened by him for their jobs, and that complaints about the lawmaker’s behavior to his chief of staff went nowhere.
In his seven full legislative sessions, Gabryszak got 13 bills signed into law by the three governors he served under. Gabryszak came to Albany in 2007, the same time as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned a year later.
Among the bills on which he was a prime sponsor that became statutes was Jay-J’s law, which bolstered penalties against repeat child abusers that was named after a young Erie County boy abused by his father, as well as a bill to redirect money to Western New York for economic development purposes from the sale of unused hydropower by the New York Power Authority. Gabryszak also got passed a bill permitting daredevil Nik Wallenda to make his 2012 walk over Niagara Falls.
Gabryszak has proven a Democratic mainstay in Cheektowaga and later Depew and Lancaster for more than three decades, serving as a Cheektowaga councilman and then supervisor for a total of 22 years. In 2006, he succeeded Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz in the Assembly after the veteran lawmaker announced his resignation to become an Albany lobbyist.
Gabryszak’s most successful presence during his days in Albany may have occurred in 2008, when the state-sponsored Berger Commission recommended closure of St. Joseph Hospital in Cheektowaga and he emerged as a major champion to preserve the facility – which is now part of Sisters Hospital.
He also lists among his accomplishments securing $180,000 for infrastructure improvements to the Anna M. Reinstein Cheektowaga Public Library, $3,500 to the South Line Fire Company for new training equipment, and $2,500 for the Doyle Fire Company to support volunteer firefighters.
But Gabryszak never achieved the stature in local or statewide politics of his two predecessors in the Cheektowaga-based Assembly seat. Dennis T. Gorski successfully ran for county executive three times after starting in the Assembly, while Tokasz rose to become the body’s majority leader.
Indeed, most Albany sources say Gabryszak was viewed as a quiet legislator who never gained any of the limelight sought, and often achieved, by colleagues from Western New York. But by securing the Democratic endorsement in each of his Assembly elections and relying on the district’s overwhelming Democratic majority, he always ranked as a “sure thing” candidate for the party.