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Editorial: Albany hearing on sexual harassment drags long-stifled subject into the light

The enemy of sexual harassment victims is silence. When no one will listen, or worse, when their voices are muzzled, it adds to their psychological scarring and leaves their assailants free to prey upon others. Albany knows all about that.

Breaking the code of silence, the culture of “What happens in Albany stays in Albany,” was the purpose of last week’s hearing on sexual harassment, held by the Legislature. It had been 27 years since the last such hearing, exploring a topic that “is not merely overlooked, but actively avoided,” in the words of State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat. It’s a policy that invites abuse and creates victims.

Harassment victims testified to the lasting impact on their lives – bouts of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two women who worked for Assemblyman Vito Lopez of Brooklyn gave appalling descriptions of the former Democratic boss’ treatment of them, which included suggestive comments, unwanted touching and retaliation when they spurned his advances. Lopez resigned from the Assembly in 2013 after being censured for sexual harassment. He died in 2015.

Harassment or sexual misconduct in the Capitol are all too familiar to Western New York. A Buffalo lawyer, Elias Farah, testified about his ordeal working for former Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak, an Erie County Republican. Farah said Wozniak retaliated against him after he ended a relationship with her.

Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat, was censured by the Assembly for an affair with an intern. He later resigned from an economic development job with the Cuomo administration as it emerged that he’d paid a state employee to keep quiet about their relationship.

Former State Sen. Marc Panepinto, D-Buffalo, stepped down from office 15 months into his first term with little explanation. Later, it was revealed that he tried to buy the silence of a staffer to whom he’d made unwanted sexual advances. In December, he was sentenced to two months in jail.

The hearing by a joint Assembly/Senate panel was called after pressure from a group of former Albany staffers called the Sexual Harassment Working Group. It was attended almost exclusively by Democrats, who took control of both chambers in November’s elections. Republicans need to pay attention, as well; they have an interest in this, too.

The hearing focused on sexual misbehavior in the private sector as well as among government personnel. A study by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, presented at the hearing, found that nearly 11 percent of New Yorkers over age 18 report having experienced sexual harassment in which a superior at work “tried to trade job benefits for sexual favors.”

The pressing question now is, where do we go from here?

In Albany, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics is in charge of handling complaints from legislative staffers about harassment. Some of those testifying last week said JCOPE is ineffective. Farah, the Buffalo lawyer, complained that JCOPE staff asked about victims’ prior sexual history.

“The process with JCOPE is that you’re on trial,” Farah said.

It will be up to the Legislature’s leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, to revisit the issue, investigate what reforms are needed and show that “zero tolerance” is more than a slogan. The hearing was a start, but that’s all it was. More work remains.

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