Senate and Assembly policies on sexual harassment are not strong enough, some say.

ALBANY – It was 2013 and then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was planning to go public with all sexual harassment complaints in the House.

The move was part of a policy overhaul that began a year earlier when Silver came under heavy criticism for covering up deals made with two victims of Vito Lopez, a plagued member of the legislature. scandal that had been accused of being a serial sexual harasser before resigning. this May, two years before his death.

As a reactionary move, Silver suggested policy changes designating lawmakers and senior executives as “mandatory journalists,” requiring them to notify if they believe there has been sexual harassment among members or staff.

Still, the decision to automatically release the documents has bothered at least one lawmaker, a former MP who walked into Silver’s office and told him the plan was a bad idea.

The MP, who spoke on condition of anonymity, then helped reshape the Assembly’s weak policy on sexual harassment, a business of several years.

“I was extremely uncomfortable with this policy and the idea that if a woman came forward and wanted to complain about a powerful lawmaker or her boss, it would automatically become public,” she said. “If that happened to me, I would never complain.”

It follows a complete overhaul of the policy of the Assembly. Rick Rossein, a sexual harassment training and investigation specialist at the City University of New York School of Law, has been hired to lead the process. The former MP participated in strengthening the document.

Senate politics also underwent a transformation in 2018, after Democrats won a majority.

Despite revisions and an assembly policy that lawmakers have touted as one of the strongest in the country, some say neither chamber policies go far enough to protect employees who need them, nor do they offer a trauma-informed approach for survivors wishing to initiate a complaint.

“When I comment on policies, I feel like it’s almost a little silly because it assumes that policies are actually being followed,” said Elizabeth Crothers, former legislative assistant and member of the Task Force on sexual harassment, a mix of and former legislative staff who report being sexually assaulted or harassed on the job.

“Just as important as the policies is the feeling that they are going to be implemented or that someone has read them,” she added.

The policies include provisions that some observers say could discourage survivors from filing complaints, including a lack of transparency and giving the Speaker of the Assembly autonomy of final decisions once a complaint has been made. ‘an investigation and is supported.

In a written response to a request for comment, Senator Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, said, “As with any policy on sexual harassment and the workplace, they better protect employees when they are reviewed often.

“These policies are meant to be reviewed and improved on a regular basis to ensure that employees are informed and protected,” she continued. “I am determined, and I think the leadership of the Senate feels the same way, that our workplace policies must be constantly evolving. ”

Comparing the policies, the Times Union found that the Senate’s policy is only available through the chamber’s online portal for employees, while the Assembly’s is posted on its public website.

Senate policy does not specify when or how inquiries are made public. However, the Assembly declares that once the investigation is completed, “all related findings will be made public”. But this does not include investigations in which a complaint is unfounded. And since the Assembly’s Ethics and Policy Committee has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, it’s unclear how often they can get stuck in their votes behind closed doors.

“My biggest problem with this policy is that I don’t think they’re investigating,” the former MP said of the Senate process. “There is no evidence that they do.”

The Times Union contacted the majority offices of the Assembly and the Senate seeking data documenting the number of complaints received since their policies were updated (a practice which is normally carried out annually or semi-annually), how many were founded, unfounded or are under investigation.

The Assembly stated that it was not keeping this information. The Senate did not respond to the request.

The policies of both chambers outline steps that could arguably be interpreted as questioning a survivor’s story.

Under Assembly policy, the state’s Human Rights Division “will investigate your complaint and determine whether there are probable grounds to believe that the discrimination has taken place.”

In Senate policy, it says: “The Senate personnel officer and the Senate secretary or his representative will determine, based on the investigation report, whether improper conduct has occurred.”

Additionally, Assembly policy states that “filing an internal complaint with the Assembly does not extend your time to file with (the Human Rights Division) or in court. … The year or three years are counted from the date of the most recent incident of alleged discrimination or harassment.

Crothers thinks that is not enough. “There is a lot of burden on the victim to get it right,” she said.

She alleged that she was raped at the age of 24 by Michael Boxley in 2001, who was Silver’s chief attorney. She reported the attack and then agreed to close the legislative investigation to no avail as she believed it would not lead to a fair process or justice. In court, prosecutors cited evidentiary issues and reached a deal to allow Boxley, who had been charged with rape, to plead guilty to sexual misconduct, a misdemeanor.

The power dynamics at play in the legislature’s harassment policies are also troublesome for Crothers. When a complaint is made against a member, the lecturer reviews the findings and recommendations of the ethics committee and makes a final written decision, in accordance with the document.

“I’ve always thought of it as the final arbiter of what he decides is the truth,” she said. “I don’t know how anyone can go through this process thinking there is a level of fairness.”

Confidentiality is often a critical necessity for a survivor to come forward. Vague language in Senate policy indicates that a person’s ability to remain anonymous may not be guaranteed.

It states that an investigation will be conducted with the greatest possible confidentiality in the circumstances and that the Senate “does not require employees to submit to a confidentiality agreement, unless the employee voluntarily consents. and with respect for the rights and wishes of all. parties.”

The language is problematic, the former MP said, because it does not compel an accused to remain silent or prevent them from publicly denigrating a complainant.

“How am I encouraged to file a complaint if my confidentiality cannot be protected at all? ” she said.

The persistent problem of sexual harassment in state government gained further attention over the past year when former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo was found in two inquiries – one by the Assembly and one another by the state attorney general’s office – for sexually harassing, touching, groping or acting inappropriately with multiple women, most of them staff. Cuomo denied the allegations but announced his resignation on August 10, a week after the attorney general’s findings were made public.

Current and past behavior on the State Capitol is emblematic of why policy revisions like these are relevant to ending a culture of toxic behavior in the workplace that has been pervasive in politics. the state.

When Congresswoman Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat who represents part of Lower Manhattan, was chief of staff to Ron Kim, an MP for Queens, she learned not to ride in an elevator with some lawmakers on Capitol Hill for fear that ‘she is forcibly groped.

Other staff knew it too, she said.

At some point early in her career, she said, then assembler Vito Lopez allegedly grabbed her buttocks on an elevator ride. She had no idea he was a member and once she found out she decided not to report the assault, in part because she didn’t want the incident to affect the position Kim’s policy.

“I knew that if I had to do anything or say anything, it would actually affect his political career,” she said in a recent interview with The Times Union. “So I didn’t say anything.”

The indecent behavior did not end there. There was a hot or not hot list circulating in the Capitol, Niou recalls. Later, the men who watched it “examined the women in their offices.” In another incident, she said, a Republican member referred to Niou as an “eastern girlfriend” by the way.

Another time, in a closed-door meeting with male lawmakers, Niou, Biaggi, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, State Senator Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, were all called “sluts and assholes, ”Niou recalled. .

“There’s a lot going on and no one ever talks about it,” she said. “People treat it like it’s the norm. People make comments; people say things about other people and you think that’s the norm.

One point Niou wanted to add is that she said that there are factors other than policies that continue to make work in state government an unstable environment for some of the most vulnerable employees, such as limitations of protections for legislative staff.

“There are so many things that contribute to a system that makes it very dangerous for the people who work there,” she said.

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