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State ethics panel criticized at hearing on sexual harassment

Matt Ryan
New York Now (file photo)

A recent legislative hearing on sexual harassment in state government focused in part on the role of the state’s ethics commission in investigating charges of alleged abuse.

And according to those who testified, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, was insensitive, secretive and not sufficiently independent from politics.

At the hearing, held earlier this month, Sen. James Skoufis asked several witnesses who were victims of harassment by state lawmakers if they had dealt with JCOPE or a previous state ethics commission in the course of trying to seek justice.

All raised their hands.

Skoufis then asked whether they were happy with the outcome.

“How many of you have faith that they handled your situation or could have handled your complaint to your satisfaction? “Skoufis asked.

Just one, Rita Pasarell, responded.

“This is a half of a hand,” Pasarell said.

Pasarell is one of several women sexually harassed by former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. The ethics commission found Lopez mistreated women on his staff, and he was fined $350,000.

But Pasarell said JCOPE did not adequately examine the role of then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver appointed some of the JCOPE members.

She said because of that, future victims of Lopez were unaware that there had been past harassment incidents.

Silver is facing prison time for a corruption conviction brought not by state ethics watchdogs, but by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan.

Pasarell said the ethics commission investigators did not appear to have been trained on how to interview victims of trauma, and said they asked inappropriate and humiliating questions.

“JCOPE has asked questions about people’s past sexual relationships,” Pasarell said. “And that doesn’t seem right.”

Elias Farah also testified at the hearing. He had brought a complaint against former Assemblymember Angela Wozniak for workplace retaliation, saying that after he ended a relationship with Wozniak, she sought retribution that included badmouthing him to future prospective employers. Wozniak, who did not seek re-election, was admonished by the Assembly for her actions.

Farah said he was also summoned to answer questions as part of a probe by JCOPE. He said he felt like he was the one on trial.

“They were taking names, past partners from relationships,” Farah said. “I felt like I was in trouble for something, for going to them.”

JCOPE never released the outcome of the investigation.

JCOPE Executive Director Seth Agata and Deputy Director of Investigations Emily Logue also testified at the hearing. Logue said it’s sometimes necessary to ask victims “tough questions” about their past sex lives to help defend them against countercharges by the alleged abuser.

“And the best way that we can be prepared to keep certain irrelevant evidence out is to know about it, and to ask about it in advance,” Logue said.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Andrew Gounardes, were skeptical of that answer.

“It sounds like we’re falling into the same old tropes of victim-shaming, and placing the burden on people to prove that they weren’t asking for it,” Gounardes said. “And that, to me, is a little outrageous.”

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who is a survivor of sexual abuse, also admonished JCOPE for its handling of sexual harassment cases. She said the commission needs to train investigators on how to better handle trauma victims. And she put the commission on notice, saying that things are changing.

“The world is sick of seeing politics as usual,” Biaggi said. “I think that these elections have proved that. And I really think that we owe it to everybody in this state to do better.”

Biaggi won a primary against former Sen. Jeff Klein, who was accused of forcibly kissing a staffer. Klein, who denies the charge, asked JCOPE to investigate the alleged incident. The commission has so far not reported any results.

There’s a bill in the Legislature to reform JCOPE to open up its inner workings to the public and to hold accountable lawmakers who are found to be guilty of misconduct.

Agata told lawmakers that if the Legislature changes the rules to permit the commission to be more transparent, they would be happy to comply.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.