National News

Investigate an Accused Ally? New York Senate’s Republican Leader Says No

Posted January 11, 2018 7:49 p.m. EST

ALBANY, N.Y. — The state capital was riven Thursday by a bevy of calls from various quarters for an investigation of Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, the powerful Senate leader alleged to have forcibly kissed a former staffer and the most significant figure accused of sexual harassment here in years.

But the Republican leader of the Senate, John J. Flanagan of Long Island, said any investigation would not come from his chamber. The Senate, he said, has no mechanism to investigate Klein, his longtime political partner who leads a rogue group of eight Democratic senators, the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, who collaborate with the Republicans to create a majority.

“At this point, this is an allegation in which no formal complaint was ever made,” Flanagan said in a statement. “While it may be within the scope of other entities, an investigation into this matter is not within the jurisdiction of the Senate.”

Flanagan called Klein “a good and decent person who treats others with respect,” while also saying “we take every allegation of sexual harassment seriously and will continue to encourage everyone to come forward.”

Flanagan’s decision came even as Albany continued to reel with both the scandal — quickly supplanting the arrest of a Democratic assemblywoman this week — and a sense that the national reckoning about sexual harassment had finally arrived in the state capital, and right in the middle of its odd power-sharing arrangement.

“Time is up in Albany, too,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, referring to the new #TimesUp movement, which seeks to fight sexual harassment.

Ossorio was one of several people pushing for an independent investigation in the wake of an allegation — first outlined in HuffPost on Wednesday — from a former lawyer on Klein’s staff, Erica Vladimer. Vladimer, 30, said Klein had kissed her against her will outside an Albany bar in spring 2015, while his staff was celebrating the end of the state budget season.

“All of a sudden there was a hand on the back of my head and he shoved his tongue down my throat,” she said. Vladimer left her job shortly after the alleged incident, and said she had spoken out “to help the women who might have been in a similar situation.”

Klein, who represents portions of the Bronx and Westchester County, has strenuously denied that the episode occurred, pre-emptively holding a conference call with reporters Wednesday alongside his girlfriend, Sen. Diane J. Savino, of Staten Island, another member of the IDC.

Savino also denied Vladimer’s allegations. Klein commissioned a memo from his lawyers outlining their case, accusing Vladimer of drinking that night and acting peculiarly, something they said was evidenced by the young woman inviting Klein over that night for a Seder dinner.

Things quickly escalated. Vladimer, now a budget and policy analyst with New York City, responded Thursday with a lengthy Facebook post saying that “Sen. Klein abused his power by violating my body, and ultimately my mind and soul.”

She added that her experiences in Albany’s culture of sexual harassment were “more insidious than this one moment in time with this one man,” and called for “laws protecting staff from becoming victims.”

“But legislation and rules can only go so far,” Vladimer wrote. “It’s time to hold our elected officials accountable.”

At the same time, however, what was emerging was another age-old truth about Albany: It takes a lot to change the status quo, particularly where ethics are concerned. As Flanagan’s statement suggested, there were other possible avenues to investigate Klein, but none seemed likely to act quickly or, critics said, effectively to address sexual harassment.

“It’s pretty clear that Albany needs an independent ethics watchdog,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “And we don’t have one.”

Indeed, one of the principal groups charged with overseeing and policing legislators’ behavior — the Joint Commission of Public Ethics — has been faulted in the past for lacking investigative muscle and proper funding. On Thursday, a spokesman for the commission, Walter McClure, said he could not comment on “anything that is or may be an investigative matter,” though he noted that the commission has issued investigations of sexual harassment in the past, including former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, who was found to have made sexual advances toward women who worked in his office. (That investigation’s findings, however, were issued almost two years after Gabryszak had resigned.)

On Thursday evening, Klein seemingly upped the ante, sending a letter to the acting chairman and executive director of the committee requesting that they open an investigation, saying again that the incident “did not happen, period,” and citing his lawyer’s own six-day investigation of “current and former staffers present at the time.” Sexual misbehavior is hardly a new phenomenon in Albany, where lawmakers once bragged about the “Bear Mountain Compact,” an assertion that extramarital liaisons north of the Bear Mountain Bridge, a Hudson River crossing north of New York City, were not to be spoken about in home districts.

In 2012, the Democrat-dominated Assembly was rocked by the unsavory acts of Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, a powerful Brooklyn Democrat, who had sexually harassed female staff members. As recently as November, a Republican assemblyman, Steven T. McLaughlin, was disciplined for sexual harassment, after an investigation found he had asked a female Assembly staff member for naked pictures of herself.

The Lopez episode led the Assembly to enact a series of reforms, including mandatory reporting of any complaint of sexual harassment and a ban on confidential settlements, proposals also being suggested by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other lawmakers this year.

The Klein scandal also threatened to overshadow the legislative session that began last week, and added intensity to the discussion of possible changes to internal policies and state laws meant to address sexual harassment. In a coincidence of timing, less than 24 hours after the news of Vladimer’s allegations broke, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor — the two highest ranking women in state government — stood before an audience of hundreds of people in the New-York Historical Society’s auditorium in Manhattan to unveil Cuomo’s 2018 Women’s Agenda.

Both women heaped praise upon the plans, including the governor’s promise to crack down on sexual harassment in the workplace. But they made no mention of Vladimer or Klein, or of harassment in state government more broadly, even as they stressed women’s courage in coming forward and the importance of believing their stories.

“2018 needs to be the year when society responds,” DeRosa said.

On Wednesday evening, Cuomo issued a brief statement about Klein, saying that “every allegation of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously.” But he did not say whether he believed Vladimer’s accusations nor offer any critique of Klein, adding only that he agreed with Klein that the “disturbing situation” should be investigated.