The High Cost of Lowlifes
Ever since former Assemblyman Vito Lopez oozed into oblivion after a slew of accusations surfaced about him sexually harassing his female staff, Speaker Sheldon Silver has been wriggling out of responsibility for what happened under his watch.
The scathing revelations of Lopez’s abject, repeated misconduct laid bare the Assembly’s unofficial policy of protecting sexual predators. Yet the Joint Commission on Public Ethics barely touched on the Speaker’s negligence in its 2013 report, because Silver’s appointees refused to authorize a full investigation. The Speaker’s unchecked habit of sweeping complaints under the rug allowed lowlifes like Micah Kellner and Dennis Gabryszak to allegedly verbally harass and make lewd advances to their employees under the reasonable assumption that the staffers had no recourse.
But now a court is going to have the final say. In the civil case brought by Lopez’s second set of alleged victims, Victoria Burhans and Chloe Rivera, a federal judge affirmed that “Silver created a culture ‘in which Lopez believed he could sexually harass the women on his staff with impunity.’ ” Denying his motion to dismiss, Judge Analisa Torres made clear that by allowing Lopez’s behavior to go unchecked, “plaintiffs have a plausible claim that Silver participated in and caused the deprivation of their rights.” Torres rejected Silver’s defense that he was not responsible for protecting Assembly staff, writing, “Silver could not have believed that his actions were reasonable under state or city law.”
In fact, when the standard applies to people other than himself, Silver agreed with the judge that “inaction is actionable.” Under the Assembly’s new policy, any supervisor or member who receives a complaint of sexual harassment is required to report it. “Failure to report will be subject to immediate sanction,” read the grammatically incorrect rules.
An outrage second only to Silver’s hypocrisy and incompetence is the ballooning expense the people of New York are now incurring to address his mess. First there is the $360,000 contract registered with the Office of the State Comptroller for Merrick Rossein. A highly regarded employment discrimination lawyer, Rossein has been retained to oversee all sexual harassment investigations. This outsourcing of the Speaker’s responsibilities was originally reported to cost $205,000. Perhaps it increased after Rossein realized the extent of the problem. Mr. Rossein ignored numerous requests for comment, although this seems understandable considering his workload.
Then there is the $200,000 in the state budget for Gov. Cuomo’s confidential sexual harassment hotline (and anticorruption website): an important resource for employees who do not trust the Assembly leadership. Compared with those outlays, the $103,000 settlement to Lopez’s original victims seems like pocket change. Expect that number to grow if Burhans and Rivera are victorious in court. The attorney general had determined that Silver is entitled to indemnification under the Public Officers Law, which means the state will be responsible for reimbursing the plaintiffs’ legal fees and any financial judgments awarded to them. Unfortunately, the state can’t use the $330,000 in fines it levied against Lopez to cover the bill because he has yet to pay up, pleading both poverty and the cost of dealing with his cancer’s recurrence.
Add to the bill the Assembly’s taxpayer-subsidized lawyers at Hogan Lovells. According to the state comptroller’s records, the lawyers are already halfway through their $500,000 contract. If Silver is unhappy with their recent performance in court, he can confer with his personal counsel at Proskauer Rose, who is costing the state roughly $500/hour, according to the Daily News.
To be clear: It is a valid use of public dollars for the Legislature to investigate misconduct, provide resources for employees and make restitution to those it failed. But these expensive Band-Aids would not have been necessary if Silver had simply prioritized employee safety over the Assembly’s reputation. Instead, he compromised both, and taxpayers are stuck spending what is already upwards of a million dollars to clean up his mess.
Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.