New York City

How New York is addressing sexual harassment

Politicians at every level of government are responding to #MeToo

Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein lev radin/Shutterstock

One might think New York’s political class has been above reproach in its policy response to the recent revelations of widespread sexual harassment in high-profile industries such as politics, Hollywood and media: U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has become one of the most visible leaders in Washington on the issue, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo made combating harassment and sexism a major focus of his annual State of the State address. Legislation has been recently proposed in the state Legislature to address sexual harassment in state government and some private workplaces, and the state Senate has updated its sexual harassment policy.

But some experts and advocates are skeptical that the state government will actually take meaningful action. Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University said she isn’t convinced that Cuomo would make sure meaningful legislation is passed. She argued that Cuomo has a history of calling for reforms but not seeing them through, pointing to the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, an anti-corruption panel that he created and then abruptly shut down in March 2014. Greer said she was uncertain this topic would remain a priority by the end of the legislative session. “He does enough to say that he’s on the right side of history,” Greer said. “But as far as financing or really following through, there’s nothing about this governor that lets us know that he’s progressive or going to lead the charge in any capacity.”

Greer added, “I think that there are some individual members who really do care about this and want to make sure there’s some changes made, for women in general, but also for the safety of their colleagues and future colleagues. It’s actually up to the body to keep it on the table, but I would be very surprised if this is still a priority in June.”

Legislation isn’t the only way to punish sexual predators, though. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, for example, filed suit against the New York City-based Weinstein Co. over co-founder Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment and assault allegations.

Greer thought Schneiderman’s legal action was productive, but won’t further the cause of creating a uniform policy on sexual harassment across the state government. Moreover, observers said sexual harassment remains prevalent in the state’s political culture. Albany has a history of sexual harassment scandals, one that is acknowledged by members of the state Legislature. State Sen. Liz Krueger, an outspoken advocate for women, said in a November interview with City & State that changes needed to be made.

“We need to strengthen the laws and make it really clear where the lines are so that you don’t get to cross them, but it’s also true that we need to support strong ethical people who run for office,” Krueger said.

“We have known for a very long time just how ingrained sexual harassment has been in the culture in Albany, and the fact that so many people have been able to buy their way out of bad behavior, or just walk away from it with a slap on the wrist, lets me know that we have a long way to go,” Greer said.

Efforts to tackle sexual harassment aren’t just limited to Albany, however, with New York lawmakers taking action from Suffolk County to Lackawanna to the halls of Congress. Here is a rundown of the ways New York’s politicians are reacting to the call for greater accountability in responding to sexual misconduct.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

After stumbling in his response to accusations of sexual misconduct against a former aide in December, Cuomo began the new year by prioritizing the “women’s agenda” in his State of the State and budget addresses. The governor proposed legislation in his budget creating a uniform sexual harassment policy throughout state government, prohibiting taxpayer funds from being used in settlements against individuals accused of harassment or assault, and establishing a unit within the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics to receive and investigate complaints of sexual harassment. Although his ambitious women’s agenda was praised by the National Organization for Women New York City, his proposal to establish a unit in the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to address harassment claims and streamline the investigative process has raised concerns among some advocates, who consider it insufficient to handle complaints against lawmakers. Cuomo also announced on Wednesday that he had introduced a 30-day amendment to his budget to ban sexual contact between police officers and people in custody.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit on Sunday against the Weinstein Co. and the production studio’s founders, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, delaying its sale to an investor group. The lawsuit claims that the Weinstein Co. and its founders perpetrated sexual harassment, intimidation and discrimination against state and New York City law, and requests that the defendants compensate the victims.

Schneiderman’s office issued updated guidance on sexual harassment to inform New Yorkers of their rights in the workplace. The attorney general has addressed sexual harassment before: In 2012, he issued an executive order prohibiting a broad range of misconduct.

State Legislature

The state Senate has been embroiled in controversy since state Sen. Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, was accused of sexual misconduct in January, potentially threatening a reunification plan between the IDC and mainline Democrats. State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan declined to investigate Klein and an independent investigation is being conducted by JCOPE.

The state Senate updated its sexual harassment policy at the end of January, including a controversial section condemning false accusations and added limits on the amount of time for an appeal after a state Senate investigation ends. The policy was criticized by state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who was not consulted on the policy, and who called it “proof the Senate leadership is not serious about combating sexual harassment.” Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans have proposed their own legislative packages addressing sexual harassment.

The Assembly updated its sexual harassment policy in 2013, after former Assemblyman Vito Lopez stepped down amid revelations of several sexual harassment settlements. In December, Assemblywoman Sandy Galef proposed a bill that would implement a uniform sexual harassment policy across the state, similar to what Cuomo later proposed. In October, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic proposed legislation that would protect fashion models from harassment.

New York’s congressional delegation

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand unveiled legislation in November to reform and strengthen the sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill and secured bipartisan backing for an updated bill in December, with Rep. Jackie Speier of California introducing similar legislation in the House. The House passed its version of the bill on Feb. 6.

New York City Council

The New York City Council plans to hold a hearing on Feb. 28 to discuss the city’s sexual harassment policies, after several bills were introduced in December to address the handling of sexual harassment cases in the city and create more transparency in the process. The City Council Standards and Ethics Committee also recently concluded an investigation into behavior by Councilman Andy King, ordering him to undergo sensitivity and ethics training for violating the council’s anti-harassment rules in his interactions with a female staffer. In response to a recent allegation that two NYPD officers raped an 18-year-old Brooklyn woman, Councilman Mark Treyger has also introduced legislation that would prohibit police officers from engaging in sexual activity with people in their custody, similar to the amendment proposed by Cuomo.

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said private companies that do business with the city should disclose sexual harassment complaints against their employees, but later declined to say if he would be willing to release information about harassment claims against city officials.