Cuomo moment: We work in New York government. Sexual harassment in Albany is an open secret.
The multiple allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo must be investigated. We cannot compromise on worker safety and dignity.
For decades, the Bear Mountain Compact, an unofficial agreement in which “what happens in Albany stays in Albany,” has fostered a culture of open secrets in New York state government. Once again, the dam has broken upon the backs of brave survivors and now, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is boldly calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
Over the past couple of weeks, many women have come forward to describe alleged accounts of abuse by Cuomo. As we learned about Lindsey Boylan, Charlotte Bennett, Anna Ruch, Karen Hinton, Ana Liss and a sixth woman who remains anonymous, the parallels to our own experiences of workplace sexual harassment by a powerful elected official have been striking and triggering.
We believe the women who say Cuomo is a serial harasser. He does not belong in office. Moreover, any investigation into his behavior must also look into his enablers. The state cannot allow systemic failures to traumatize additional workers.
Too many are familiar with the scenario outlined by writer Moira Donegan: a boss who uses fear and intimidation as currency, exploits a power imbalance and initiates a pattern of boundary violations that progress from being too friendly, to inappropriate, to suggestive and finally, in some cases, to physical assaults. This is the harasser’s playbook, testing the water and trying to alter their victim’s sense of what is a “normal” interaction.
Albany's rot runs deep
In 2011 and 2012, the four of us reported sexual harassment by former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a longstanding and powerful member of the New York legislature and leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
Like many of Cuomo’s alleged targets, we experienced the trauma of a seemingly untouchable boss who would complain that he was lonely to pry into your personal life, ask demeaning questions meant to test and embarrass you, touch or kiss you without permission, and use your status as a sexual assault survivor to try to shame and undermine you. We know the terror of having the most powerful man in the room harass you in plain sight of others, and then resort to gaslighting or retaliation when you speak out.
When Leah Hebert and Rita Pasarell first reported Lopez’s sexual harassment, their complaints should have been promptly referred for an investigation. Instead, the New York State Assembly chose not to initiate an investigation and instead opted to cover up their complaints, and silence Leah and Rita with a nondisclosure agreement. Months later, Lopez hired Tori Kelly and Chloë Rivera, who then in turn endured abuse from Lopez. He never admitted what he did to us and we settled cases against him, but a 2013 investigation by the State Joint Commission on Public Ethics revealed additional women who were also subjected to Lopez’s workplace abuse.
The failure to investigate the initial claims created a de facto policy or custom of tolerance of sexual harassment, without which Tori and Chloë’s suffering could have been prevented.
Hold Cuomo accountable
While all of the accusations against Cuomo have been distressing, the lack of investigation in Bennett’s case has haunted us. Bennett alleges that Cuomo constantly steered their conversations to sex and made it clear he wanted a sexual relationship with her. When she raised the issue with the chief of staff, Bennett was transferred.
Executive Order 187, which Cuomo signed, is clear: There should have been an investigation, and the onus is not on the victim to ask for one. Instead, Bennett was transferred, like Leah and Rita, and nothing was done to account for the abuse that occurred, or prevent future harms.
USA TODAY Health and Wellness:No one is saying it's rape. They're saying the accusations against Andrew Cuomo matter.
Some critics, however, are wrongly equating accountability with “cancel culture” or, as head of the New York State Democratic Committee Jay Jacobs suggested, that bullying is part of "hardball" politics, and that "there’s this misconception that producing good government results is going to be nice, or sweet, or easy — it’s not."
This is wrong: Workers’ trauma is not acceptable collateral damage in a public official’s quest for unchecked power, and there is enough credible evidence to believe Cuomo’s current staff are in danger. Accountability is not necessarily meant to punish; it is essential to a safe work environment.
According to a 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, at least 87% of workers who experience sexual harassment do not file a formal complaint. Seeing sexual harassment go unchecked not only discourages reporting, it also discourages women from staying in jobs where they feel that they cannot be taken seriously because their professional worth is tied to their appearance or their acceptance of harassment.
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Indeed, Albany’s reputation for harassment and discrimination may dissuade young New Yorkers from even considering public service. This is a disservice to all New Yorkers.
As survivors who continue to work in government, we are committed to sharing our experiences and knowledge to inform better policy. Powerful men like Cuomo, like Lopez, do not operate in a vacuum; abusers are emboldened and protected by a network of enablers — from senior staff to the very system that allowed their abuse to go unchecked for decades.
It is not enough to just get rid of Cuomo, any enablers must also be held accountable.
Leah Hebert, Rita Pasarell and Tori Kelly are co-founders of the Sexual Harassment Working Group (SHWG), a worker collective of former legislative staffers in New York state, all of whom experienced or reported sexual harassment, and work in New York government. Chloë Rivera works in New York government. Follow SHWG on Twitter: @harassment_free