As sexual harassment allegations against public figures continue to make headlines, a state assemblywoman wants to create a uniform sexual harassment policy for all lawmakers and state government employees.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, D-Ossining, introduced a bill on Wednesday evening that would require the state’s Division of Human Rights to develop and implement a standard complaint reporting requirement and investigation procedure for all state agencies and employees, as well as members of the executive branch and the Legislature.
Among the bill’s provisions would be a requirement that nondisclosure agreements between victims and their harassers would be rendered void and unenforceable. Nondisclosure agreements in settlements between accused harassers and victims have been cited for allowing serial predators to avoid exposure.
In an interview Thursday, Galef said there must be a uniform sexual harassment policy “we can all agree to.”
In 2013, amid sexual harassment scandals that rocked the state Assembly, the chamber enacted a robust sexual harassment policy that provides a long list of examples of what constitutes sexual harassment. The chamber also hired legal consulting firm Rossein Associates, whose name partner, Merrick Rossein, is a professor at CUNY School of Law at Queens College, to handle sexual harassment policy development and investigations. The assembly also has retained Albany-based Roemer Wallens Gold & Mineaux as outside counsel for independent investigations of sexual harassment.
The state Senate, which has its own sexual harassment policy, in recent years retained Manhattan-based employer defense firm Kraus & Zuchlewski for sexual harassment investigations.
The Senate’s three-page sexual harassment policy “isn’t as specific” as the one implemented by the Assembly, Galef said. “I’m not quite sure what the governor’s policy is,” she added. A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment about the chambers’ sexual harassment policies and protocols.
“Those things should be very clear,” Galef said of each chamber’s sexual harassment policy. “Who’s to handle it? What is the procedure? What is the timeframe?”
Under Galef’s legislation, which hasn’t yet been assigned a bill number, sexual harassment investigations could not take more than 90 days to complete after the initial complaint is reported. The Division of Human Rights would then have to hand down a decision within 30 days. In addition, nondisclosure agreements between victims and their harassers would be void.
“These confidentiality agreements are designed to protect the harassers, not the harassed. It gives perpetrators who actually engaged in inappropriate conduct the cover to continue their abuse elsewhere because they were never called out for their actions,” Galef said.
Galef’s bill comes after national discussion on sexual harassment in workplaces has triggered a movement in Hollywood and elsewhere. New York’s Capitol, which has had a slew of sexual harassment cases, is no exception.
Last month a former Cuomo administration official, Sam Hoyt, was sued in federal court in Manhattan on sexual harassment charges. The governor was also named as a defendant in the civil rights lawsuit filed by a former Department of Motor Vehicles employee. The complaint filed by Lisa Marie Cater of Buffalo accuses the Economic Development Corp. and the governor of turning a blind eye to her complaints.
Last week the Assembly’s ethics committee admonished an outgoing assemblyman over workplace harassment stemming from allegations that he asked a female assembly employee for nude photos.