ALBANY – When the 2014 legislative session opens this week, all eyes here will be on seat 37 in the Assembly.
That’s the chair that Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak occupies when the Assembly is in session, and session opens Wednesday.
But after six women accused the Depew Democrat of sexually harassing them while on his staff, the question Democrats and Republican lawmakers are asking is: Will the embattled lawmaker show up for the start of session or might his days as a New York State lawmaker be nearing an end?
“It’s not going to be received well,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes said of the prospect of Gabryszak’s walking through the door and sitting down in his Assembly chamber seat.
And some also are wondering whether taxpayers are going to be paying for his pension and legal defense against the complaints.
Women in the Democratic conference were already furious with word last year that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver cut a secret deal with a former Brooklyn lawmaker to end sexual harassment cases against him.
Now, with details of alleged harassment by the 62-year-old Gabryszak against six young women on his Assembly staff, the anger is spilling over.
“We’re just frustrated with this whole thing. Not just Dennis, but all the other cases. It’s adding up, and it’s disgusting,” said Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat.
Her Assembly seat is just a few over in the same aisle as Gabryszak’s, below and to the left of the rostrum.
What should Gabyrszak do?
“He should have some respect for his fellow colleagues, and he should leave so we can get back to dealing with the issues of importance,” Peoples-Stokes said.
If Gabryszak were to leave office soon, he would do so with more than 60 percent of his salary in the form of a pension. His pension got a bump because of a job promotion Silver awarded him last year.
According to a Buffalo News calculation based on his $92,000 salary, his 31 years of total government employment and his age of 62, Gabryszak would receive approximately $53,885 a year in pension payments. That is up from $46,900 he was in line to get before Silver last year made him co-chairman of the legislative commission on rural resources, a post that gave him a $12,500 stipend on top of his $79,500 base legislative salary.
And with court cases looming by the six women, and possibly more to come, who would pay Gabryszak’s legal bill?
In legal cases from criminal complaints to sexual harassment, lawmakers in the past have dipped into their campaign accounts to pay the costs of attorneys.
Gabryszak’s campaign account has just $12,000.
There is a long lineup of former lawmakers and even governors who have had the state pay the costs of attorneys’ fees, according to Terrence Connors, the lawmaker’s attorney. The same option is available to Gabryszak, whether he stays in office or leaves, Connors said.
“Under Section 17 of the Public Officer’s Law, Assemblyman Gabryszak, like all elected officeholders, is entitled to defense and indemnification. It’s a statute that’s been around forever,” Connors said.
And if Gabryszak does resign, who would fill the seat?
Unless Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo calls for a special election, Gabryszak’s seat would remain empty until next November’s general elections.
Gabryszak’s Assembly seat is just paces away from the seat occupied by Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican whose name Gabryszak allegedly twisted in a conversation with one of his accusers to suggest a sexual act.
“I wonder how she’s going to react seeing him,” one lawmaker said Friday.
Peoples-Stokes said she worries that the accusations against Gabyrszak stain all lawmakers and detract from what she said are important issues facing the state.
“I just don’t feel that folks will receive him well at all. We’re all Americans, and we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” she said. “But with six people coming to say the same thing, some inkling of it must be coming from somewhere.”