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Capital Region Assemblyman Sanctioned For Harassment Denies Charges

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

A New York state Assemblyman has been sanctioned by the Assembly Ethics Committee for allegedly sexually harassing a staff member. Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin denies the charges and has asked for a criminal investigation of the ethics committee itself.

The complaint against Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin stems from a June 2016 accusation from a female staffer, who said the Republican from Rensselaer County made lewd comments to her and asked to see nude photos of her. McLaughlin is also accused of releasing the name of the staff member, then lying about it. The initial investigation was conducted in the summer of 2016, where members of the committee, along with an outside law firm hired by the Assembly, interviewed 10 witnesses and looked at texts and emails.

The bi-partisan Ethics Committee deadlocked, with a vote of 4 to 4, over whether there was enough evidence to show that McLaughlin had violated the Assembly rules against sexual harassment. But the committee members unanimously agreed that McLaughlin should undergo two to three hours of sensitivity training. One year later, in June 2017, they wrote McLaughlin a letter telling him that if he underwent the training and did not retaliate against the staff member, they would consider the matter resolved. The committee said in their letter that they did not believe that the matter should be made public.

All was quiet until Nov. 27, when Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie wrote a letter saying the committee reopened the case after hearing accusations that McLaughlin had been spreading around the name of the female staffer who had made the complaint.

On Nov. 29, Heastie wrote that the committee had revised its initial ruling, and directed that McLaughlin receive a letter of admonition, saying that he violated the chamber’s policies against sexual harassment, and that he stop publicly naming his accuser. The committee also said it now believes that McLaughlin “is guilty of the sexual harassment of which he was accused”. The Assemblyman will also no longer be allowed to have interns in his office.  

In an interview, McLaughlin says he “categorically” denies all of the charges, and says it was the ethics committee itself that illegally leaked the name of his accuser. He says he made the allegations that someone on the committee leaked the name in a sworn statement to the ethics committee in early November of this year.

“That ticked them off, so now they come back at me a different way,” said McLaughlin. “I never did that. I did not leak the name.”

McLaughlin has been an outspoken critic of Governor Andrew Cuomo, and other state Democrats, as well as members of his own Assembly Republican conference. He questions the timing of the announcement, just after his election to a new post as Rensselaer County executive.

And he calls it a “political hit job”.

“I’ve continuously pointed out the corruption, the dysfunction that’s going on there,” McLaughlin said. “There’s no doubt I put a target on my back.”

He says he’s “speculating”, but wonders whether the Democrats decided to “give him a shot” as he exits the Assembly at the end of the year.

McLaughlin has asked Albany County District Attorney David Soares to investigate, saying his civil rights were violated because the ethics committee unlawfully tried to ruin his reputation. He is also questioning why the Assembly paid the outside firm of Merrick Rosswein Associates more than one million dollars in fees since 2014, according to records from the state comptroller’s office.  

He says he reluctantly agreed to undergo the additional sensitivity training because the committee threatened the matter could be made public.  

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, says the case raises a number of questions, including why the investigation took so long. And she says it illustrates the inherent flaws in an ethics review that is controlled by the lawmakers themselves.

“Unfortunately incumbency tends to be a bit of a tribe, and there is a tendency for members of the legislature to want to protect other members of the legislature,” said Lerner who says the system is “expensive” and needs reforms to work “correctly”.  

No one in the Assembly would agree to an on the record interview, but the chair of the Assembly Ethics Committee, Aravella Simotas, issued a statement, saying “The Assembly has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation” and that “The documents released today speak for themselves."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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