ALBANY, N.Y. — A culture of secrecy has long shielded state lawmakers accused of sexual harassment in New York. But advocates hope a new policy will bring accountability and prevent further misconduct.
Two weeks ago the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed on a uniform policy prohibiting harassment at all levels of government. The rules prohibit secret harassment settlements and require government officials found liable for harassment to pay the cost of their settlements.
National attention on sexual misconduct in the workplace had spurred calls for change in Albany, which has a long history of secret harassment settlements, sometimes paid with taxpayer money. That arrangement allowed lawmakers to resolve the claims without public scrutiny. In 2012, Democratic leaders of the state Assembly were criticized after approving a secret $103,000 settlement of harassment complaints against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez by former staffers.
Cuomo called the new policy “the nation’s most aggressive anti-sexual harassment agenda.”
“The days when women in the workforce would endure whatever the boss pleased are over,” said state Sen. Elaine Phillips, a Long Island Republican.
Yet the policy still falls short, according to critics, including a group of former legislative staffers who say they were harassed by lawmakers.
The public still cannot access records about harassment claims, for example, because the state Legislature isn’t subject to the state’s own open records law.
Critics also note that no women were allowed to participate in final negotiations over the measure, which were conducted by Cuomo and top lawmakers, all men. And they say the policy doesn’t go far enough to protect employees from harassment based on gender.
Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who has been urging her colleagues to crack down on sexual harassment in state government, said she was “very disappointed” that the final measure wasn’t broad enough.
The group of former staffers — all women — note that the measure was rushed through the Legislature on the final night of budget deliberations, and that victims themselves didn’t get a chance to offer input.
“It is disappointing that our elected officials feel our protection deserves so little attention and transparency,” the group said in a statement. “True progress to protect workers from sexual harassment, and overhaul Albany’s terrible mechanisms for handling complaints, must include listening to the victims who have actually endured the process.”