Sexual-harassment victims tell horrific stories about NY's Capitol in first hearing in 20 years
Elizabeth Crothers, who was shunned when she accused Assembly counsel Michael Boxley of rape in 2001, describes the lasting impact of the attack during a hearing in Albany on Feb. 13, 2019. Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY – Chloe Rivera was 24 when she was hired as a legislative aide for then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the powerful Brooklyn lawmaker and Democratic boss.
He would make inappropriate comments about her body and clothes, she testified Wednesday. He would tell her to rub his hands as he drove, implored her to wear more revealing clothes and asked her to send him fawning messages.
"I was stuck in what felt like an endless cycle of harassment," she described.
Rivera was among a series of former aides at the state Capitol who detailed sexual harassment by ex-lawmakers and the failure by state government to address their complaints at a hearing Wednesday.
Their testimony was the first time in more than two decades that state lawmakers heard directly from victims of sexual harassment in Albany, even after the Legislature passed laws in recent years seeking to crack down on workplace harassment.
The hearing was aimed at finding out what other laws the Legislature should adopt to address sexual harassment in workplaces across New York.
"Our goal in looking at any specific cases is to understand how the process should be improved to ensure that all allegations are handled properly from now on," said Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Pelham, Westchester County, chair of the Senate Ethics Committee.
Advocates and policymakers shared stories of their own harassment amid efforts to clean up a state Capitol long criticized for not doing enough to address victims' concerns.
In some cases, victims said they were pressured into signing non-disclosure agreements in exchange for any monetary settlements.
"Even today, I’m still not legally allowed to confide in my own mother about the abuse I suffered," said Leah Herbert, a former chief of staff to Lopez, who was censured by the Assembly years after his abuse, resigned and died in 2015.
"After six years of silence, living every day on my own in isolation, I speak out now because I have to."
Roberta Reardon, commissioner of the state's Department of Labor, testified that harassment in the workplace has long been considered part of the job for women —an environment, she said, responsible for ending many careers.
"As someone who's spent most of my life in the entertainment industry, I've seen it first hand. I've also been a target," she said, saying new laws in New York should help.
"I'm so proud today to say those dark days are being relegated to a history that is gone but not forgotten," Reardon continued.
Victims are heard
Danielle Bennett, who filed a complaint against then-Assemblyman Micah Kellner, her former boss, speaks out at a hearing on sexual harassment in Albany on Feb. 13, 2019. Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
For victims, Wednesday's hearing was long overdue.
Advocates first asked to be heard in March as the Legislature geared up to pass legislation aimed at bolstering the state's sexual harassment laws.
But a hearing never took place, and the new policies were crafted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and three male lawmakers with what critics said was little input from female lawmakers.
That changed this year when Democrats took control of the state Legislature and a record number of women were elected.
The hearing Wednesday was powerful. Former workers at the Capitol described an environment where their complaints were often met with skepticism or mired in bureaucracy.
"If protecting an institution includes protecting sexual predators and attempting to discredit and re-traumatize victims, what does that mean?" testified Elizabeth Crothers, who in 2001 said she was sexually assaulted by Michael Boxley, a former top aide to then-Speaker Sheldon Silver.
"We are delusional if we think an institution lacking the courage to protect its own workers is even worth protecting."
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi speaks to victims who testified at a sexual harassment hearing on Wed., Feb. 13, 2019. Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
The cases centered on the state Assembly, which for 20 years was headed by Silver, who has since been convicted in a corruption case.
Silver was repeatedly criticized during the hearing for not taking the accusations by female aides more seriously.
In 2012, Silver quietly agreed in 2012 to a settlement of $103,000 with two of Lopez's accusers. Another $580,000 was later paid out to other Lopez victims.
The settlements, though, were of little solace, the women described Tuesday, saying they often required them to leave their jobs and hurt their employment opportunities. The cases also got considerable press attention, which caused more trauma.
Several of them said they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health problems.
"When I finally came forward to file a complaint on behalf of myself and three of my staff, I was a shell of my former self, both physically and emotionally," Hebert said.
"I was severely traumatized and suffered from regular panic attacks and suicidal thoughts."
A changing cultural
Wednesday's hearing comes at a time of change for Albany.
November's election saw the end of the "three men in a room" mentality that surround the Capitol for years: with the power centered on the Assembly and Senate leaders and the governor.
Democrats' winning control of the state government catapulted Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, Westchester County, to the position of Senate majority leader — the first time it has been held by a woman.
The change has been apparent.
Last month, a group of female lawmakers shared their stories of sexual abuse as lawmakers debated the Child Victims Act.
The Legislature last year passed major reforms to the state's sexual harassment policies, which Cuomo has repeatedly claimed to be the toughest in the country.
Employers can no longer be able to include clauses in employment contracts that could prohibit an employee from suing because of sexual harassment.
The laws also will only allow nondisclosure agreements to be used when it is a victim’s request, not the preference of the person who committed the sexual harassment.
The state Department of Labor and the Division of Human Rights also have to create a sexual harassment policy that will be used by public and private employers.
Cuomo has said he's supportive of bolstering the state's anti-harassment laws, proposing several new reforms this year.
"Anything else we can do on sexual harassment, we will do," Cuomo said Wednesday.
Advocates have said the laws don't go far enough to protect individuals in the workplace.
They were also negotiated in part by former Sen. Jeff Klein, the former leader of the Independent Democratic Conference who Biaggi beat at the polls last year.
Klein, at the time the legislation was drafted, faced accusations of forcibly kissing Erica Vladimer, then an IDC staffer, outside an Albany bar in 2015. He has denied any wrongdoing.
During her testimony, Vladimer said she was left with three choices: File a complaint and participate in a reporting process she did not trust, ignore the alleged attack or leave her job.
"Who would believe me over a powerful man like Klein?" she said. "I chose to leave state government without reporting what happened."
The group is calling on lawmakers to change the state's "severe and pervasive" standards of sexual harassment, which they say leads to greater sexual harassment in the workplace and few avenues to pursue justice.
"The assemblyman’s behavior persisted and escalated in part because of a culture that does not value workers and treats charges of harassment as a threat to the Assembly that must be combatted," said Danielle Bennett, a former aide to ex-Assemblyman Micah Kellner, D-Manhattan, who was accused of harassment by several workers.
An ongoing issue
Sexual harassment has been an ongoing issue in Albany long before the #MeToo movement.
Since 2006, eight members of the Assembly have either faced sanctions or resigned in connections to claims of sexual harassment or improper fraternization.
Eric Schneiderman — the state's former attorney general who was once considered a strong advocate for victims of sexual harassment — was forced to resign in May just hours after The New Yorker magazine published an article detailing abuse accusations against him by four women who said he hit them or otherwise demeaned them in romantic situations.
Schneiderman has since acknowledged his wrongdoing, but stopped short of directly admitting to any abuse. He did not face criminal prosecutions in part because of the state's statue of limitations on crimes of sexual abuse.
Includes reporting by the Albany Bureau's Joseph Spector and Jon Campbell.