It’s been five years since we learned about the sordid behavior of Vito Lopez while he served in the New York State Assembly.
Looking back, I thought that was the moment state government was forced to address its demons regarding sexual harassment.
Lopez, a powerful 71-year-old assemblyman from Brooklyn at the time of the accusations, was accused of groping two young female staffers, and other behavior that can only be categorized as “creepy.”
When the two staff members filed complaints, then Speaker Sheldon Silver approved a $103,000 taxpayer payout, then forgot to forward the complaint to the Assembly’s ethics panel.
It was a cover-up.
As the outrage over Lopez’s behavior and Silver’s cover-up grew, Lopez eventually resigned, and two years later the two young staffers received a settlement of over $500,000 from the state. Lopez was responsible for paying just $35,000. He died in 2015.
Reforms were suggested.
Some were enacted.
But the attention generated by the Lopez case should have put all state employees on notice that this behavior was not going to be tolerated.
But now I’m not so sure.
This past week, Politico reporters Jimmy Vielkind and Marie J. French published a pain-staking account of the sexual harassment problem in state government, where they followed a paper trail that includes some 1,000 complaints that have cost taxpayers more than $6 million in settlements over the past six years.
Vielkind and French have been working on the story since November, following a paper trail that in most instances the state has only recently begun to track.
That’s probably because of the Vito Lopez case.
The two reporters tracked records through court filings, state payment records and official figures. They included 54 cases settled for over $5.5 million by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, 18 out-of-court settlements tallied by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli totaling nearly $700,000, a $60,000 judgment by the state Division of Human Rights and the infamous $103,000 settlement approved by Silver in the Lopez case.
What was refreshing, according to Vielkind, was that state officials were generally cooperative in helping to get the data they sought.
That is often not the case with state government.
State officials indicated to Politico they thought the number of cases was not extreme considering the size of the state’s workforce — 132,000 employees.
Vielkind told me he had no sense of whether the figures were good or bad for the state.
“I don’t think I can answer that,” Vielkind said. “Give me another entity that has 132,000 employees.”
For comparison purposes, the reporters pointed out that state government in California had paid more than $25 million in settlements over the past three years, and that taxpayers had funded at least $17 million for harassment settlements in Congress.
The Politico reporting revealed there were 376 complaints in the state in 2015, 249 in 2016 and 237 in 2017 across 54 state agencies. Of those 862 complaints, 305 — or just over 35 percent — were substantiated.
The most complaints came from the Department of Corrections (which oversees prisons), the Office of Mental Health (which oversees psychiatric hospitals) and the Office of Children and Family Services (which oversees juvenile detention facilities).
Politico also reported there were no complaints among Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s closest aides.
These numbers did not include complaints generated from SUNY, CUNY, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or the court system.
But here is another thing to remember — the settlement totals do not include the cost of legal expenses for accused state employees, or what elected officials might pay in settlements out of their campaign funds.
Further proposals have been made in the Legislature this year to restrict confidential settlements by the state, and in some instances, make elected officials or supervisors personally liable for harassment awards.
The reporters did find several cases where accusations of Lopez-like sexual harassment were made in horrific detail.
In one case, a woman working in the Department of Corrections received a $730,000 settlement.
The second largest settlement was for $545,000 to the two victims in the Lopez case. From what I’ve read of Lopez’s behavior, that is more than justified.
The state Senate also settled one complaint for $82,100, but officials said the complaint was not against an elected official.
Granted, New York has a giant, sprawling bureaucracy, but 1,000 complaints — at least the ones Politico was able to find — in the past five years indicates to me that the state still has work to do.