State Senate’s new harassment rules include warning to false accusers

Feb 01, 2018
  • By Jesse Mckinley
  • The New York Times
NATHANIEL BROOKS/NYT
State Sen. John Flanagan in Albany, N.Y., Jan. 16, 2018. Flanagan, the Republican leader of the State Senate, said that the chamber would not investigate State Sen. Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat, after allegations of unwanted sexual advances were made against him.

With the nation in the midst of a profound national reckoning over sexual harassment in the workplace, the New York state Senate has revamped its decade-old policy on the topic — but some of the changes are not exactly what one might expect. 

To be sure, the definition of harassment was expanded, more protected classes were included, and disciplinary warnings were included if supervisors failed to report harassing behavior. 

But the new four-page policy, distributed to members of the Senate and staff on Monday and obtained by The New York Times, also contains a new sentence stating that “reporting a false complaint is a serious act,” and then — as it did before — warned that such false accusations or false statements to investigators can result in disciplinary actions or firing. 

The new policy also limits the amount of time that an employee — or someone who was accused — has to appeal to Senate lawyers to 15 days after any conclusion is drawn. “No appeal will be entertained after,” the policy reads. 

Those particular changes struck Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the Senate Democratic Conference, and the only female leader in either chamber of the Legislature, as tone deaf amid the clamor of the #MeToo movement. 

“To emphasize the punishment for filing a false report while not emphasizing the seriousness of sexual harassment is exactly the type of intimidation that has silenced so many through the years, and encourages perpetrators to attack accusers,” Stewart-Cousins, from Westchester County, said in a statement, adding that she was not consulted about the new policy. She called it “proof the Senate leadership is not serious about combating sexual harassment.” 

The new policy, last updated in 2007, comes weeks after a prominent member of the chamber, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, was accused by a former aide of unwanted sexual advances. 

Klein, who leads the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, has denied the accusations — accusing the former staffer of drinking and lying about the episode. 

The Republican leader of the chamber, Sen. John J. Flanagan of Long Island, has said that Klein will not be investigated by the Senate. Flanagan explained his decision by saying that Klein’s accuser, Erica Vladimer, who left Klein’s staff shortly after she alleged the senator forcibly kissed her outside an Albany bar in 2015, had not ever made a formal complaint. 

Flanagan works with Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference and another Democratic senator, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, to maintain control of the Senate, even though Democrats hold a slight numerical edge in the 63-seat chamber. 

Vladimer said she was “once again disappointed by the failure of those in power to step up.” 

“I look forward to the day when the old boys’ club of dysfunction and protection of power is a thing of the past,” she said. “But today, I feel sick.” 

Republicans in the Senate said the review of the sexual harassment policy began before the Klein scandal broke and said the new policy was “once again making clear that retaliation will not be tolerated.” 

“We take this issue very seriously, and have endeavored to make sure each and every employee of the New York state Senate is provided with a safe work environment free from harassment and discrimination,” said Maureen Wren, a spokeswoman for Flanagan. “The provision that is being referenced by Sen. Stewart-Cousins existed previously and has not been changed in any meaningful way. It is and always has been wrong to make a false complaint.” 

The new policy, sent by Francis W. Patience, the secretary of the Senate, also expanded the Senate harassment policy to include provisions to prevent discrimination, adding “creed,” “color,” “military status,” “familial status,” “predisposing genetic characteristics” and “domestic violence victim status,” to categories of protected from bias by Senate employees. 

The policy also includes a stipulation threatening disciplinary action if supervisors fail to report harassing behavior and expressly articulated that harassment “is gender neutral and may involve individuals of the same or different gender.” It also offered examples of behavior that can be considered harassment, including “remarks or negative stereotypes that are derogatory and/or demeaning to an individual’s protected class.” 

“The claim that the alleged conduct ‘meant no harm’ or was ‘just a joke’ is not an excuse,” the policy reads.