ALBANY – The women who work in this town are fed up.
After a decade of headlines about sexual impropriety, harassment and even alleged rape by male legislators or other state government officials, female legislators say it is time for the male-dominated Legislature to take new steps to show it is serious about protecting female staffers who work for politically powerful male bosses.
Whether it was the number – seven – of women involved or the range of disturbing allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, who announced his resignation Sunday, there appears to be a new anxiousness on the part of women who work at the Capitol for male government leaders to more firmly address sexual harassment as a problem.
“There’s such a nonchalant attitude by the men … They don’t take this seriously,” said State Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Westchester County Democrat, who talked of “many” young women coming to her over the years to complain about treatment by male legislators.
In an interview, Hassell-Thompson and State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said the Legislature and executive branch should authorize an independent office where women can go, without fear of retribution, to complain about instances of sexual harassment.
“Part of the problem is that once it happens, people don’t know where they can go to be assured that their concerns will be addressed without the allegations being buried or being personally attacked for bringing the complaints,” Krueger said.
“We are each elected individuals, and we have our own staffs, but that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to have carte blanche power to behave any way we want, and there needs to be a mechanism where real and serious complaints can be brought to be addressed,” she said.
Albany is no stranger to government corruption cases, but the number of sexual impropriety cases that have hit the Capitol over the past decade – from ex-governors to lawmakers – is opening new wounds for female legislators working in a male-dominated Legislature. While female legislators say some women are more empowered than they were a couple of decades ago to not sit quietly when they are harassed, they worry that attention to the problem only seems to come when there is an active case making headlines.
In the past decade, there has been a string of those embarrassing headlines, from a top Assembly lawyer accused of raping a staffer, to the resignation last year of a once-powerful Brooklyn assemblyman after being accused of trying to get female staffers to sleep with him and even touch his cancerous tumors.
There have been, of course, the blockbuster stories: Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer left office after becoming embroiled in a prostitution ring, and then his replacement, David A. Paterson, admitted on just his second day in office that he had “a number” of extramarital affairs, including with a state employee.
One lawmaker suggested male lawmakers take some affirmative steps. “The majority of these instances are men harassing women … so some of the solution has to come from men having an honest discussion about what’s proper behavior and why there are some members who can’t adhere to normal, appropriate, professional behavior,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat.
Female legislators were taken aback at the claims against Gabryszak, many of which allegedly came last year while former Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s sexual harassment case was making statewide headlines. “There was a different level of disdain by a lot of women,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said of the Gabryszak case.
Peoples-Stokes, though, has her doubts about solutions.
“I’m not sure how you control people with their crazy behaviors or hormonal imbalances or whatever it is that makes them do things that lack integrity,” she said. “People either have moral values or they don’t.”
Her idea? “Elect more women because clearly this has not been a problem with female elected officials,” she said.
Sexual harassment experts question the effect of an Assembly policy that requires lawmakers and staff to attend only a two-hour sexual harassment training session once every two years.
“It should probably happen much more often than that,” said Liz Watson, senior counsel and director of Workplace Justice for Women at the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, which advocates before legislative bodies and the courts on women’s rights issues.
In the State Senate, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos has ordered all employees to undergo annual sexual harassment prevention training.
Watson said the Legislature also should have multiple places where victims of sexual harassment can take their complaints “because sometimes the person you might complain to … is not the person you trust.” In the case of Gabryszak, his former staffers allege they took their complaints to his chief of staff, who allegedly did nothing or told them to find new jobs.
Watson said employers should seize the opportunity to make an impact when sexual harassment cases become public or known in the workplace. “That is a time when employers need to give the workforce a shot in the arm … and say we have zero tolerance … and really reiterating that this is conduct we won’t tolerate,” she said.
The first major opportunity for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to raise the issue with his members was Monday, when he addressed the opening of the 137th Assembly session in Albany. He did not mention the Gabryszak case or the broader sexual harassment issue.
Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, an Erie County Republican, said Silver handled the Gabryszak case better than he did last year’s case involving former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat, where he entered into what he thought was a secret settlement to resolve two cases of sexual harassment against Lopez.
But Corwin said she learned in business school that an organization’s culture is set by its chief executive. “Unfortunately, for a long time, this has been a ‘good old boys’ kind of business and that’s what needs to change,” she said.
Corwin said that Silver needs to set the tone and that the message of condemning sexual harassment needs to be made more than in just news releases.
“Everyone in the Legislature needs to hear it,” she said, “and the speaker, certainly in our body, has to set the tone for all of us. ‘Hey, look. I’ve had enough. We’re not doing business like that anymore. Handle things differently.’ I’ve not heard that message coming from him. There is a lot more he can say to assure the women of this body that we are going to do things differently.”
A Silver spokesman said that the speaker has repeatedly and publicly said he would not tolerate sexual harassment by lawmakers against staff and that Monday’s speech by Silver was focused on Democratic policy goals for the 2014 session.
Gabryszak’s nameplate was taken off his Assembly desk Monday morning, but it was back on again Monday afternoon, and his name was on the voting tally board above the Assembly chamber. An Assembly official said it was likely because Gabryszak’s formal resignation papers had not yet been submitted; that is due today, the outgoing lawmaker’s lawyer said.
Silver suggested his public comments had a role in Gabryszak’s departure. “I called upon him to resign if the allegations are true. I assume enough of those allegations are true that he followed through on my request and resigned,” he said Monday.
Silver said the civil suits looming against Gabryszak by his female accusers “will certainly continue.” Whether the Assembly ethics committee continues to look into the allegations – even though it could not impose punishment on the resigning lawmaker – is up to the committee, Silver said.
In the Assembly, staffers who believe they have been sexually harassed by a legislator can report it to their immediate supervisor or contact an outside, independent lawyer retained by the Assembly and whose numbers are on internal Assembly websites.