After Long Wait, Harassment Victims Speak Out In Albany
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — One staffer says an assemblyman tried to have her fired after she reported his inappropriate advances. Another says a state senator kissed her after a long day at work. A third recalled a lawmaker who demanded massages, touched her inappropriately and questioned her sexuality when she rebuffed him.
Speaking before lawmakers Wednesday, the three women agreed that much more must be done to rein in workplace harassment — inside and outside of the state Capitol.
"He was wrong to do what he did, but the bigger issue was the institution," said Danielle Bennett, who accused former Democratic Assemblyman Micah Kellner of making sexually suggestive comments. When her complaint was passed along to a senior Assembly attorney, it was ignored and Bennett left her job. "I should not have been chased away. I should not have been treated as a problem."
Tuesday's hearing was called at the behest of several newly elected female lawmakers who had campaigned on the issue. They say the stories from victims — and testimony from experts in employment law — will help them craft new policies designed to prevent and stop harassment.
"This type of behavior is unfortunately not just in the Legislature. It is everywhere. It is an epidemic. It is disgraceful," said Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-New York City. "And this is the first step to being able to deal with this."
Last year, following the revelations of the #MeToo movement, lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacted a new anti-harassment policy for all levels of government. It also directed private companies to adopt their own policies.
The changes don't go nearly far enough, harassment victims told lawmakers Tuesday. They also note that no women were involved in drafting the new rules, which were negotiated by Cuomo and top lawmakers before they were hastily inserted in the state budget on the day of the vote.
Suggested reforms include better training in the workplace, new processes for reporting and investigating complaints, and changes to non-disclosure agreements and legal settlements so they can't be used to silence victims.
Cuomo, who has praised the state's existing anti-harassment rules, said he's willing to consider even more changes.
"Anything else we can do on sexual harassment we will do," Cuomo, a Democrat, said Wednesday.
Chloe Rivera told lawmakers that she was a 24-year-old eager to break into politics when she was hired by then-71-year-old Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a powerful Democrat from Brooklyn.
Rivera recalled that Lopez told her how she should dress, made comments about her appearance, touched her inappropriately and questioned her sexual orientation when she resisted his advances. He insisted she give him massages. She said he had a history of such behavior around female staffers.
"He explained that as his employee, it was my responsibility to make sure he was happy," Rivera said.
In response, then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used $103,000 in public money to quietly settle harassment claims against Lopez. Rivera and another ex-staffer sued Lopez, the Assembly and Silver, arguing that Silver had created an environment in which harassment was covered up and tolerated. The state lost, and paid a $545,000 settlement.
The lawmakers accused of misconduct at Wednesday's hearing are all gone from the Legislature now.
Kellner left the Assembly in 2014 after admitting to making inappropriate comments and twice being disciplined by the Assembly for his actions.
An ethics investigation later confirmed the allegations against Lopez. It also found that he required female staffers to write flattering and flirtatious memos to him that he later tried to use to discredit his accusers and demanded that they rub tumors in his neck when he had a recurrence of cancer. He died in 2015.
The Associated Press typically does not name victims of sexual assault, unless they have come forward publicly to share their stories, which Bennett and Rivera have done.