Sexual Harassment Charges Against Senator Reveal Flaws In Reporting Systems

Jan 11, 2018

There are numerous calls for an investigation of sexual harassment allegations against New York state Senate Independent Democratic Leader Jeff Klein. But there are few options for launching an independent probe.

Shortly after sexual harassment allegations against Senate Independent Democratic Leader Jeff Klein emerged, numerous people started calling for an independent investigation. But under current law, there are few avenues available for launching a probe.

Klein, the leader of a group of eight breakaway Democrats and a key power broker in the State Senate, is accused by a former staffer of forcibly kissing her on March 31, 2015, outside of an Albany bar. The woman made the allegations in an article in the Huffington Post. Klein says he is innocent and that the alleged incident never happened.

The Senator, speaking just before the article was published, says he’ll cooperate with any investigation.

“I have nothing to hide,” Klein said.

Governor Cuomo, along with two Senate Democrats, including the Senate Democratic Leader, is among those calling for an independent probe. But there are few options available under current law.

Cuomo proposed, in his State of the State speech, setting up an entirely new entity to independently review sexual harassment complaints. But that hasn’t happened yet, and even if the legislature were to rapidly approve it, it could not apply retroactively to the complaint against Klein.

The Leader of the State Senate, John Flanagan, says the chamber does not have the jurisdiction to investigate the charges, because the accuser is no longer a Senate employee, and no formal complaint has been filed.  

Jean Bucaria, with the National Organization for Women, says the allegations need to be “investigated and taken seriously.” She says the case shows how badly New York needs a better system for dealing with sexual harassment complaints.

“There’s really not a clear pathway for victims to come forward and get the help that they need,” Bucaria said. “That needs to change.”

Senate Leader Flanagan does say that a probe of the accusations against Klein may be “within the scope of other entities.”

The one existing state agency that could investigate the allegations is the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. No formal complaint needs to be filed, as long as eight of the fourteen commissioners agree to launch a probe.  The commissioners are appointed by Governor Cuomo and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and Assembly, as well as the State Comptroller and Attorney General.

A spokesman for JCOPE says as a matter of policy he can’t comment on the existence of any investigations.

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, has long advocated for a better way to independently handle all types of misconduct charges against state officials.  She says while JCOPE is a “step in the right direction” it is also problematic, because JCOPE can only make recommendations to the legislature, leaving it to Senators and Assemblymembers to decide whether to enforce a judgment against a colleague.

"That’s an inherent conflict,” Lerner said.

JCOPE also has a complex system of veto powers by commissioners, which makes it easier for factions or even members of the same political party to block an investigation that they don’t like.

Lerner says a new system needs to be created that is timely and fair to both the accused and the accuser.

The state Assembly has also dealt with several cases of alleged sexual harassment in recent years. Former Assemblyman and now Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin was accused of sexually harassing a legislative aid. The case took over a year to resolve, and was not made public until November of 2017, 18 months after the complaint was first made.  McLaughlin was sanctioned for sexual harassment but denies the charges.

The woman who made the allegations against Klein, Erica Vladimer, agreed to be identified in the Huffington Post article. Vladimer also posted on Facebook Thursday afternoon.  She did not back down from her allegations against Klein, saying the Senator “violating my body, and ultimately my mind and soul.” And she pledged to support others who find themselves saying “me too,” saying they do not have to go through it alone.

Late in the day on Thursday, Senator Klein wrote a letter to JCOPE, requesting that they conduct a formal inquiry into the matter. Klein said in the letter that the “alleged incident did not happen, period”. Klein also cited an investigation conducted by an attorney that he hired. The lawyer found no evidence of any wrong doing. The Senator says he’s “prepared to fully cooperate” with a probe.