It took too long, but finally, when he could put it off no longer, Dennis Gabryszak bowed to reality. He resigned from the State Assembly, allowing the women there to breathe a little easier.
It took a month for him to decide – or even to make any public statement – about allegations of vile behavior from seven women who worked for him. When he did speak, his comments were covered in lawyerly fingerprints: “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.”
And in that non-apology is the former assemblyman’s defense when the civil cases against him come to court: “Yes, I behaved piggishly, but you can’t prove, by the letter of the law, that it was sexual harassment.”
Maybe he’s right that his conduct didn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment, but it could also be worse than that. One of the women who has filed legal papers claims her pay was halved when she complained about Gabryszak’s conduct to his chief of staff. If true, that suggests that women’s livelihoods were dependant upon their willingness to put up with intolerable behavior.
In his statement on Sunday, Gabryszak said that some of the allegations against him are “demonstrably false,” but he didn’t say which.
Those arguments will play out in the months ahead, but in the end, they’re not relevant to Gabryszak’s suitability to continue in office. State legislators have to be above reproach. It’s not necessary to meet the specific legal definition of sexual harassment to be unfit for service in the State Legislature.
Even the general conduct that Gabryszak acknowledged – mutual banter and exchanges – raises red flags. First of all, the head of any organization sets the tone. If he controlled the banter, then he created unsuitable working conditions.
And, of course, the question is how “mutual” this banter really was. The women complaining certainly don’t sound as though they were amused with needing to tolerate an abusive workplace in order to pursue a career and earn a living.
Beyond the legal questions surrounding Gabryszak’s conduct, two other issues need to be addressed: whether and when to call a special election, and how to discourage this kind of conduct in the future.
The first one is easy: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should call a special election for the earliest date that gives parties and candidates sufficient time to prepare and conduct a campaign. The people of the 143rd Assembly District deserve representation in the nation’s highest-taxed state. While it seems unlikely that could occur before the April 1 deadline for the state budget, their disadvantage should be kept to as short a time as possible.
As to the latter, Albany remains an ethical and legal swamp, where too many state officials act as though their position grants them license to behave in any way they choose, without fear of repercussion. That needs to end. Albany needs ethics rules with teeth, and while they might not discourage compulsive behavior, such as Gabryszak is accused of, they would do something to make the State Capitol a place of which New Yorkers don’t need to be ashamed.