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Former Albany staffer accuses top state senator of inappropriate contact

ALBANY — The leader of a breakaway group of Democrats in the state Senate has been accused by a former staffer of forcibly kissing her outside an Albany bar on the night of the state budget’s passage in March 2015.

Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat, vehemently denied the allegation that surfaced in the past week when inquiries were made by a Huffington Post reporter. The website published a story on the woman’s allegation about an hour after Klein held a hastily scheduled conference call with Albany reporters on Wednesday afternoon.

"I want to be crystal clear: This alleged incident never happened nor did anything inappropriate happen in any fashion that evening. Period,’’ Klein said.

The Huffington Post identified the woman as 30-year-old Erica Vladimer, who told the website that Klein “shoved his tongue” down her throat. “The fact that there was an environment that could make me doubt the self-confidence that I worked so hard to have — that I got from the strong women in my life — made me feel like it wasn’t the place for me,” Vladimer was quoted as saying.

Vladimer could not be reached for comment. The Huffington Post said she is not asking for Klein to resign but that he should “step up” on using his role as a Senate leader to “effectuate change” to combat sexual harassment.

Vladimer told the Huffington Post that she and Klein went outside the bar to smoke.

"In my head it lasted forever. I don't think it lasted even three seconds,'' she told the website.

“I pulled away and I said, ‘Senator, absolutely not.’ ” she said. “And he looked at me and said, with this stupid little grin on his face, ‘What? What?’ Like he was being coy, almost trying to flirt and play a game.”

Klein said he has hired an attorney to look into the allegations at Justin’s, a now-closed bar on Lark Street located a few blocks from the state Capitol.

Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who has been Klein’s girlfriend for years, was with Klein on March 31, 2015, and witnessed him and others go outside the bar onto the sidewalk for a smoke.

Savino said no allegation of wrongdoing was made at the time by Vladimer “because it never happened.’’

Klein’s office released photos of the bar to, presumably, make the point about the large window overlooking the sidewalk where Savino said she observed Klein while he was briefly outside that night.

Klein said he, Savino and about 10 staffers of the IDC Senate group went to the bar to celebrate passage of the 2015 budget. The next day, he said he heard a rumor from a staffer about the alleged incident but he paid little attention to it because, he said, it never occurred and no complaint was ever made. Klein said the woman left the Senate payroll — after two years with the IDC — about six weeks later. He said she thanked him and was leaving for a “dream job.’’

“I’ve been very clear that I welcome any type of internal investigation and there’s no reason to believe that there’s any lawsuit,’’ Klein said.

Klein and his IDC group are under pressure from Democrats to reunite with a mainline group of Democrats to oust the Republicans from control of the Senate. Republicans have 31 seats and there are 30 Democrats in the Senate. Two open seats scheduled for special elections sometime this year are in districts that have Democratic voter enrollment edges.

Klein’s IDC and the Senate Republicans have been operating under a power-sharing arrangement. Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx and a slice of Westchester County, has been in the Senate since 2004 after a decade in the state Assembly.

A “preliminary investigation” was conducted by Klein's Park Avenue attorney, Michael Zweig, and addressed the senator's interaction with Vladimer.

Zweig said his firm interviewed seven of the 10 IDC who were present at the bar on the night of the alleged incident. All said Klein was not impaired that evening and that he and Savino spent about an hour at the bar with the Senate staffers.

A three-page letter from Zweig, released by Klein’s office Wednesday evening, did not identify Vladimer. The letter refers to an “unusual” request made at the bar by a woman, who has since been identified as Vladimer. She asked Klein to come to her family home to join her for Passover Seder.

“Such an invitation was unprecedented,’’ the lawyer wrote.

Klein politely declined the request, according to the lawyer.

The lawyer’s letter states that witnesses reported the woman consumed alcohol “throughout the evening” that March night. He said budget passage time can make for busy scenes along the bars of Lark Street with staffers and “the Albany press corps out on the streets.’’

Klein told his lawyer the woman did come outside while he was on the sidewalk smoking with other staffers and that they talked. The document states that the woman — prior to the incident — had talked with other staffers about leaving her job for another opportunity.

“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity you provided me to work for the Independent Democratic Conference,’’ Vladimer wrote to Klein in her resignation letter that was quoted in the document from Klein’s attorney. She worked for the IDC for one and a half years.

The resignation letter from the former staffer came five weeks after the alleged incident. Klein’s attorney said interviews with female Senate IDC employees portrayed the senator as “at the forefront of equal rights for women” and that he has “maintained a safe work environment for female staff.’’

The Huffington Post said Vladimer’s last job with the Senate IDC was as a policy analyst and counsel. She reported that her time working for Klein had been “professional” but that it changed with the alleged incident on the night of the budget’s passage in late March 2015. She reportedly volunteered for Klein’s 2014 campaign.

The New York City Independent Budget Office lists Vladimer as an education budget and policy analyst who joined the city agency in April 2016, according to its website.

In a statement issued Wednesday night, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has a been a political ally of Klein's, said, in part: "Every allegation of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously."

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