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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Bad behavior is status quo for legislators

By Sara Foss
Saturday, January 4, 2014

When I heard about the sexual harassment allegations against state Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, I thought, “Here we go again.”

I don’t think my reaction is particularly unusual.

Anybody who finds the Gabryszak allegations surprising probably doesn’t follow New York politics all that closely.

At this point, the only thing the Legislature could do to surprise me is get through an entire calendar year without having a member accused of wrongdoing or bad behavior. For those keeping track at home, it’s been less than a year since Democratic assemblyman Vito Lopez resigned over claims of serial sexual harassment of female staffers.

As of Friday, six women had filed claims against Gabryszak, a Buffalo-area Democrat, and news reports indicated a seventh woman would file a claim soon. Meanwhile, on Dec. 30, Manhattan Democrat Micah Zellner was stripped of his leadership position after a months-long investigation by the Assembly’s ethics committee found he had sexually harassed staff members.

Now, I don’t especially care what politicians do in their private lives, and I’m seldom bothered by reports of marital infidelity by elected officials. What I find concerning is when politicians break the law, or mistreat their staff. There’s a difference between a consensual relationship between two adults and unwanted sexual advances directed at employees and colleagues.

Among other things, Gabryszak has been accused of forcing a kiss on a young woman, discussing pornographic films with another, trying to get his female staff to share hotel rooms with him and inviting female staff to massage parlors and strip clubs. The claims are all under investigation, and it remains to be seen what will happen to Gabryszak.

But if the lawmaker is found to have engaged in such behavior, he is a creep and should resign.

In an article written in the wake of Lopez’s resignation last spring, Susan Lerner of the good government group Common Cause said the case raised questions about how well the Legislature could police itself.

“What assurances do we have that a robust sexual harassment policy will be followed?” she asked.

Sadly, this question has yet to be answered. And it remains unclear when — or even if — it will be answered.

One encouraging sign is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s seeming lack of patience with Zellner and Gabryszak. Last week, he suggested the legislators explain themselves or resign.

“The latest reports of sexual harassment in the Assembly should be the last straw,” he said in a news release. “This pattern of behavior is repugnant by every standard and directly contradicts the policies the Assembly has advanced for the last 20 years.”

At this point, nobody should be confused about what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace. The state has sexual harassment policies on the books and requires legislators to undergo training on sexual harassment. But even the best policies are useless if they’re not enforced, or if complaints are ignored or swept under the rug. And training can only do so much.

The women who have complained about Gabryszak allege his chief of staff, Adam Locher, did nothing when notified of their concerns. Similarly, a female aide to Zellner complained he had made suggestive comments to her back in 2009, but the incident was not formally investigated or referred to the ethics committee until last summer. Was the failure to investigate due to a lack of policies or training? Or a lack of interest and will?

I’m not naive. I don’t hold politicians to a particularly high standard of behavior. But I do have some minimal expectations, and they include refraining from serial sexual harassment.

I’ll be interested to see what happens to Gabryszak, who is entitled to due process and a fair hearing. But I do know this: The Legislature has seen its share of really repugnant people.

It would be good for all of us if that changed.

 
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