ALBANY – Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak exhibited “incredibly poor judgment” by having an affair with a member of her legislative staff and then for retaliating against him after he broke off the affair and, soon after, made sexual harassment allegations against her, an Assembly ethics panel has concluded.
The eight-member, bipartisan Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee could not unanimously agree whether the 28-year-old Cheektowaga lawmaker engaged in a “quid quo pro sexual harassment” scheme. But the panel said her actions during and after the episode demand a range of sanctions, including a letter of admonition, banning her from employing interns and naming an independent investigator to survey employees in her office at least every six months.
Wozniak, a registered Conservative, has been under investigation by the panel since July, shortly after Elias Farah, her legislative director, ended their affair.
The panel’s findings and recommendations were accepted Wednesday afternoon by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, who wrote Wozniak to inform her of the sanctions.
“I hereby admonish you,” Heastie wrote to Wozniak, saying she violated an Assembly policy prohibiting harassment, discrimination and retaliation by lawmakers against staff members.
The obvious irony of the case was noted by lawmakers and lobbyists alike at the Capitol Wednesday: Wozniak is now the second consecutive legislator representing the 143rd Assembly District to be embroiled in a sexual harassment matter.
The affair between Wozniak, who is married and has a young child, and her employee began in what both parties told investigators was a consensual relationship in early June. It was broken off by Farah later that month, according to an ethics panel letter to Heastie that was released Wednesday afternoon. It said she continued to pursue a sexual relationship with him until she told her husband of the affair on June 28.
Allegations that she sexually harassed a male member of her staff came to the committee on July 2, and a probe of the matter was begun by the committee’s outside investigative firm. The investigation included 19 interviews, including last month with Wozniak, as well as hundreds of phone calls, email, recordings and other information.
In late August, the committee wrote her to warn her against retaliating against “complaining parties and witnesses” or taking steps that might harm her staffer’s reputation.
Instead, the committee letter states, Wozniak, soon after revealing the affair to her husband, barred Farah – who was not identified by name in the report – from working in her Cheektowaga office or from attending community events. The panel said she also “made false statements” about the staffer’s job performance to someone who had recommended him for a job. Moreover, it said her counsel, which the committee did not name, released the name of Wozniak’s accuser to the media and “used the press to further tarnish his reputation by telling the reporter that Assembly Member Wozniak would take action against anyone who maliciously defamed her.”
The inconsistencies in the stories presented by the parties made it impossible, the panel’s letter to Heastie said, for the committee to reach a conclusion unanimously – which is required by Assembly rules – that she engaged in what it called “quid quo pro” sexual harassment or “hostile work environment sexual harassment.”
But the panel did unanimously agree she showed “incredibly poor judgment” by having the affair with a staffer and then taking steps to tarnish his reputation.
Heastie accepted all the recommended steps by the ethics committee. He ordered Wozniak to halt publicizing details of the investigation or making disparaging remarks about her former legislative director. The Assembly is also agreeing to place the former aide in another legislative job for one year with comparable pay, which will come out of Wozniak’s allotted staff budget.
Wozniak is being kicked out of the Assembly’s intern placement program, will have her office operations monitored by an outside investigator and must immediately attend additional sexual harassment and retaliation training, Heastie told her.
Wozniak is president of an insurance agency in Cheektowaga that specializes in property and casualty insurance in which she had income of between $5,000 and $20,000 in 2014, according to her most recent annual disclosure form, which was filed last May with a state ethics agency.
In her most recent filing with the state Board of Elections, her campaign reported two payments totaling $4,200 in September and October to Hogan Willig, a Buffalo law firm whose partners include Steven M. Cohen. He has been representing Wozniak in the ethics panel matter.
Wozniak did not return calls for comment, and her Albany office said Wednesday afternoon that she was traveling and unavailable.
“Assemblywoman Wozniak is glad this matter is now closed and looks forward to diverting 100 percent of her attention to representing her constituents,” Cohen said Wednesday afternoon.
Cohen has been Wozniak’s sole counsel in the matter. Asked about the ethics committee reference that her counsel “used the press to further tarnish” her accuser, Cohen said: “The Assembly ethics committee tied our hands by not permitting Angela to defend herself … and I am deeply disturbed by the policies and procedure of the Assembly ethics committee and, specifically, that I never had the opportunity to examine any of her accusers under oath, nor to speak candidly to the media, a restriction that remains in effect to this very day.”
The Wozniak case is notable in at least two ways.
First, allegations over the past couple of decades of sexual harassment or sexual improprieties, at least at the Capitol, have been dominated by cases involving complaints against men. Second, there is the way in which the path was cleared for Wozniak to win her Assembly seat: she won in November 2014 following the resignation earlier that year of Dennis Gabryszak, the now-former assemblyman who was accused by female staffers of a range of sexual harassment episodes.
Wozniak enters a small club of lawmakers rebuked by an ethics panel before even getting one of their bills passed in their own legislative house.
The eight-member ethics panel, chaired by Long Island Democratic Assemblyman Charles Lavine, has four Democrats and four Republicans on it. It is the only completely bipartisan committee in the Assembly, and all its members must agree on the findings and recommendations in cases it handles. Lavine declined comment Wednesday morning.
The ethics committee’s full report on the allegations against Wozniak is, as a matter of course, being kept confidential.
The matter might not be over, however, depending on whether the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state’s main ethics agency that has investigatory powers over the executive and legislative branches, decides to ask for the Assembly panel’s report and looks into the case any further. It was the commission’s investigation of Gabryszak that led the two-house Legislative Ethics Commission to recently issue a $100,000 fine against the former Democratic lawmaker for “inappropriate conduct” relating to his former female staffers.
Democrats have already been jockeying to run this fall against Wozniak.
One of them, Monica Wallace, a University at Buffalo Law School professor, wasted little time in going after Wozniak. On Wednesday morning, Wallace took to her Twitter account and, in retweeting a Tuesday Buffalo News story about Wozniak’s troubles, wrote: “Our community deserves better.” Also vying on the Democratic side is Cheektowaga Councilman James P. Rogowski.
Wozniak ran in 2014 on the lines of the Republican, Conservative and Independence parties.