ALBANY – Decision time on whether to quit or fight is upon Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak.
The embattled lawmaker, accused by seven former Assembly staffers of sexual harassment, met for nearly three hours late Saturday afternoon with his lawyers and family to discuss his options, which come down to either returning for the start of the 2014 session on Monday or resigning from office.
If he decides to fight it out, Gabryszak faces an Assembly ethics committee probe that could lead to his expulsion, depending on what the panel finds and recommends, lawmakers said.
And there is nothing to negotiate, Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spokesman, said Saturday night.
“It’s a matter for the ethics committee,” Whyland said.
Last week at the Capitol, lawmakers privately said the anger level directed at Gabryszak is so high among his fellow Assembly Democrats that there was already talk of how to remove him from office. Whether the Democrats even allow their colleague from Depew to conference with them in their private gatherings was also in doubt last week. Lawmakers said that while there have been a slew of sexual harassment cases over the years in Albany, the allegations against Gabryszak, which he has not denied or discussed, are especially troubling because they went on for so long and are being made by so many of his former female staffers.
On Saturday evening, Terrence Connors, the lawmaker’s Buffalo attorney, declined to comment on the specifics of the meeting he held with Gabryzak and his family at the firm’s downtown office. Gabryszak has not commented since the allegations surfaced last month.
Mark Glaser, an Albany attorney who previously held top legal positions in the Assembly, was on the phone for that meeting in Connors’ office. Glaser has served as the chamber’s chief ethics counsel and is knowledgeable of legal maneuverings Gabryszak could face as well as political challenges of trying to continue serving in office.
And it is not clear what legal authority the Assembly ethics committee would possess if Gabryszak resigns.
If he worked for a state agency and was under an ethics cloud and resigned from office, state law still gives the Joint Commission on Public Ethics authority to pursue a case, including assessing fines and referring cases to prosecutors.
The seven women who allege sexual harassment against Gabryszak say he created a hostile workplace, but they have not formally sued Gabryszak or the state. Instead, they have served notice that they might bring a claim for financial damages. Their notice gives another year to bring actual litigation.
Leaving office would not end potential civil legal problems for Gabryszak, though Connors has said the state would have the legal obligation to pay any damages that might be awarded by a judge if the alleged sexual harassment incidents were proven.
The Assembly technically held its first day of the 2014 session last Wednesday, but the members were only in the chamber for a half-hour or so before leaving to attend Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State message.
Lawmakers return Monday for what is seen as the first productive day of the session, a gathering that includes opening remarks by Silver and others. There has been talk among some lawmakers that legislators might walk out if Gabryszak shows up.
Gone from the list of possibilities is any way that the Assembly would negotiate a secret settlement with Gabryszak’s accusers. Silver took that approach last year in two sexual harassment cases involving a former Brooklyn assemblyman, a route that cost Silver political capital with Democrats when the secret settlement became public.
Silver later apologized and said he would never OK such settlements in the future while promising that all sexual harassment allegations in the future would be turned over to the Assembly ethics committee to investigate.
Gabryszak, 62, would be eligible to immediately draw a state pension if he retires. The Buffalo News a week ago did a calculation of his possible annual pension based upon his Tier 3 status in the state pension system, his more than 31 years of total government service and his current salary – which rose $12,500 to $92,000 last year after Silver made him co-chairman of a legislative commission. The News estimated that his pension, if he started collecting now, would total about $53,885 per year.