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Cuomo Touts Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy, But Opponents Say It Falls Short

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the anti-sexual harassment policies enacted in the state budget are among the strongest in the nation, but his political rivals say the governor has not done enough to respond to allegations of sexual harassment in his own administration.

Cuomo, in his speech at last month’s state Democratic Party convention, contrasted New York’s newest policy to prevent sexual harassment to the lack of action in Washington, where he says “the silence is deafening."

“New York is leading the way,” Cuomo said, as the crowd of supporters cheered. “We just passed the strongest government sexual harassment policy in the United States.” 

The measure, which the legislature supported, prohibits non-disclosure agreements between victims and their abuser, unless it’s the preference of the victim to sign such an agreement. It also bans mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment cases. The new law also covers contract workers.

All employers, both private and public, will be required to adopt and distribute a sexual harassment prevention policy, and provide sexual harassment training to all employees, beginning this October.

The State Division of Human Rights is still writing the new policy on sexual harassment training and prevention.

All government and private sector employers will have to adopt that policy, or create one that is even more comprehensive.

But political opponents of the Governor say the plan falls short, and that Cuomo has not done enough to rid his administration and state agencies of sexual harassment. 

Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, an actor and education advocate released a video.

The video highlights the governor’s exchange with state Capitol reporters last December over his hiring of former State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt as a high ranking economic development official. Hoyt was reprimanded previously by the Assembly for having an affair with an intern.

Cuomo was asked by Spectrum News whether he thought, in retrospect, that it was a mistake to hire Hoyt, given his past.

“No, I don’t think so,” Cuomo answered. “I think what he did was wrong, but I don’t think it was a mistake to hire him.”

In 2017, it was revealed that Hoyt paid $50,000 to a woman he’d had an extra marital affair with, and who said he had sexually harassed her. Hoyt, who has resigned from the administration, denies the charges.

The video also features the governor’s answer to New York State Public Radio on Hoyt and anti-sexual harassment efforts, which garnered attention on social media.

“When you say ‘it’s state government’, you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you’re a woman,” Cuomo said. 

The governor later apologized for those comments.

Less than two weeks after Nixon’s video was released, Hoyt was cleared by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. Cuomo has appointed the majority of the commissioners. The letter was written by the executive director of the commission, Seth Agata, a former top aide to Cuomo. The accuser, Lisa Marie Cater, did not cooperate with the probe and is suing the state in federal court.

Nixon condemned the decision, saying the commission has “zero credibility." The government reform group Common Cause also questioned whether the ethics panel is equipped to pursue sexual harassment charges. Common Cause's Susan Learner says JCOPE does not employ any staff trained in handling such cases.

“They have no expertise in this area,” Learner said. “It wasn’t set up to investigate sexual harassment and we don’t think it’s qualified to do so.”

The Republican candidate for governor, Marc Molinaro, says the decision on Hoyt should be viewed with “deep skepticism”, and that the commission should be replaced with an independent body.

Molinaro also cites examples, reported in the Albany Times Union, of some serial sexual harassers going unpunished, while the women who complained were demoted or transferred to small, obscure offices, one of them in a makeshift space in hallway closet. Two women have filed complaints against the state with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Another has filed a federal lawsuit. 

“It is the kind of arrogance that has a chilling, chilling effect on women, whether they are inside state government or outside of state government,” said Molinaro.

A spokesman for Governor Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, says once the governor’s office was made aware of the sexual harassment charges, it took action and one of the men was fired.

“We take every allegation of workplace bullying and harassment seriously and at the beginning of this administration, work began on a uniform 10-step process for these matter that apply to the 130,000 workers at state agencies,” said Azzopardi, who said in a statement that the process was completed in 2013.

And Azzopardi says the governor and his aides were  not involved in the JCOPE investigation on Hoyt, saying it is an “independent” body. 

Molinaro says he does support the efforts of the governor to create an anti-sexual harassment policy, but says he does not like the method in which it was crafted, in a private meeting with all male legislative leaders.

Nixon has also criticized Cuomo for leaving the only female legislative leader, Democratic Senate Leader  Andrea Stewart-Cousins, out of the anti-sexual harassment discussions.

A spokeswoman for Cuomo’s campaign, Abbey Fashouer, defends the governor, saying in a statement, that he “has fought for and delivered critical legislation to protect the rights of women everywhere”, including on sexual harassment.

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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