Albany — Victims of sexual harassment broke a decades-long silence in the state’s capital Wednesday, publicly sharing personal accounts of abuse and calling on elected officials to address the issue.
A group of women, empowered in the age of the MeToo movement, called for change as they offered personal first-hand accounts of a problem that has plagued New York politics for years.
“It is up to you to institute new reforms where laws have failed us in the past and continue to fail us today,” Leah Herbert, a co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, told lawmakers.
Herbert, her voice wavering at times, spoke about the harassment she and other staffers faced while working for the late Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who was forced from the chamber in 2013.
“After six years of silence, I speak out now because I have to,” Herbert said.
Her pain was echoed by former Lopez aide Chloe Rivera.
“I was never in a position where I felt like I could turn down his invitations for late night meetings and drinks,” Rivera said, noting the barrage of inappropriate comments and sexual advances Lopez made.
Elizabeth Crothers, who says she was raped in 2001 by Michael Boxley, the former counsel to disgraced speaker Sheldon Silver, talked about the lingering pain and personal tolls of her trauma and the retaliation she faced from powerful figures in the legislature at the time.
“In my own home family and friends do not enter a room without warning,” she said as some lawmakers wiped away tears.
Eight members of the state Assembly have faced sanctions or resigned since 2006 following claims of sexual harassment or improper fraternization.
Legislators also used the lengthy, landmark session — the first of its kind in nearly three decades — to question administrators and experts about how to help victims feel comfortable coming forward about abuse, in Albany and elsewhere.
State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, who admitted during her testimony she has “also been a target,” faced tough questions about making sure employers comply with current laws.
The hours-long hearing was prompted by calls from the Sexual Harassment Working Group, made up of a collective of seven former New York State legislative workers, and a Democratic-controlled Assembly stocked with a new class of freshman female lawmakers.
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi said victim accounts will help lawmakers craft tougher anti-harassment policies for both the public and private sector.
“Acts of sexual harassment, of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct are about power,” the Bronx Democrat said. “They are systems that perpetuate the injustice, neglect or silencing of victims and enable those who abuse others to carry on without consequences. Those systems are part of a power structure that must come to an end.”
Gov. Cuomo, who proposed several changes to the current law in his budget proposal, vowed to support any legislation strengthening laws against sexual harassment and touted changes made last year.
“Look, we have the most aggressive anti-sexual harassment laws in the nation,” Richard Azzopardi, the governor’s spokesman, said.