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Governor Touts Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy; Challengers Say It Falls Short

ALBANY, NY (WSKG) - Gov. Andrew Cuomo said 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 said “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, agreed to by the state Legislature, prohibits nondisclosure 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.

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

The State Division of Human Rights is still writing the new policy on training and prevention. All government and private-sector employers would 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 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.

It 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 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 extramarital affair with who said he sexually harassed her. Hoyt, who resigned from the administration, denies the charges.

The video also features the governor’s answer to New York State Public Radio’s question about Hoyt and anti-sexual harassment efforts, which gained 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 appoints 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. The group’s Susan Lerner said JCOPE does not employ any staff trained in handling such cases.

“They have no expertise in this area,” Lerner 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, said 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 a hallway closet.

Two women have filed a complaint against the state with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Another 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,” Molinaro said.

A spokesman for Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, said 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 matters that apply to the 130,000 workers at state agencies,” said Azzopardi.

He said in a statement that the process was completed in 2013.

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

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

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

A spokeswoman for Cuomo’s campaign, Abbey Fashouer, defended 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.