CONFER: Taxpayers shouldn’t pay lawmakers’ sexual harassment settlements

Bob Confer

Over the past two years lawmakers in Albany passed a litany of laws targeting sexual harassment in the workplace. Among them are standards concerning universal training, how claims are addressed in business-to-business relations, a lengthening of the statute of limitations, and a lowering of the burden of proof.

Coming with those laws was a lot of heavy-handed preaching and concern from lawmakers. One couldn’t help but find their accusations and stereotypes about the private sector to be offensive, even comical, given the history of New York government. They are a group of men (and women) who have proven through the years that some in their ranks get drunk on their power and can’t keep their hands or thoughts to themselves.

For starters, consider three cases of local import that JCOPE (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics) settled this year.

In January, it levied a $10,000 civil penalty against former senator Marc Panepinto who, in 2018, pleaded guilty to attempting to cover-up unwanted sexual advances he made to a member of his staff.

In August, JCOPE settled, penalty-free, with Panepinto’s former chief of staff, Chris Savage, who had conversations with a staff member about future employment or monetary compensation in exchange for her silence in the harassment investigation.

Also in August, JCOPE settled with former assembly member Angela Wozniak, who acknowledged she violated state law by making personnel decisions related to an employee she had a sexual relationship with, her legislative director who alleged that she had coerced him into that relationship.

It’s ironic that she followed in office Dennis Gabryszak, who “retired” in 2014 as he faced allegations of harassment from seven women who worked on his staff.

Last month, the state settled with one of those women for $125,000. Lawsuits brought by others affected by his behavior were dismissed because the women had waited too long to make the claims. Had that not happened, imagine the state’s payout to cover Gabryszak’s indiscretions.

The lawsuit filed by his successor’s aide is still being considered — expect a larger payout since sexual relations were involved.

The settlement with Gabryszak’s accuser and, one day, Wozniak’s show something wrong with the current system: We, the taxpayers, are footing the bill for the disgusting behavior and actions of lawmakers.

Since 2000, more than 30 sitting state lawmakers have left office facing allegations of ethical misconduct. There are many more situations involving their aides or managers within offices of the executive branch who have abused their power. The amount spent on harassment settlements for all state employees exceeded $11 million from 2008 through 2017.

In most cases, they found themselves or will find themselves sheltered financially by public funds, money that could have been spent instead on infrastructure, parks and schools. It’s a sort of “get out of jail free” card.

It shouldn’t be that way and it doesn’t have to be. They should pay out for their own misdeeds.

Surprisingly, New York has made some headway in that regard ... some.

In his 2018 State of the State Address Governor Andrew Cuomo said “no taxpayer funds should be used to pay for any public official’s sexual harassment or misconduct — period. It is the bad act of the individual, let the individual pay.”

The 2018-2019 state budget embraced that stance, requiring officers and employees of the state to reimburse the state for any public payment made upon a judgment of sexual harassment.

This is a very good start, but it doesn’t go far enough.

The state still makes the payment and then has to collect the money from the individual.

Could that happen in most cases?

No. If the settlement is large enough — since it’s with the state first, it likely will be — it would hit a level that would force the guilty party into bankruptcy, absolving him or her of the obligation.

Consider a $1 million settlement in 2010 when two women accused a supervisor at the Willard Drug Treatment Center of unwanted advances. In similar cases, do you really think the accused would be able to pay that back?

To fix the possibility of bankruptcy offering an easy out, lawmakers should amend state law to allow confiscation or cancellation of taxpayer-paid pensions from the guilty party, something other states are considering.

The state could also initiate law to have the employee, not the government, be the target of suits, ensuring the attorney levying the charges can pursue a financial outcome more realistic to the accused’s ability to pay.

Also, it should not be out of the question to require, as a part of employment, lawmakers, managers and high-level employees to hold a personal insurance policy related to harassment or contribute weekly to a defined Employment Practices Liability Insurance plan specific to their specific office or public entity. Those policies would protect the taxpayers.

The state needs to go back to the drawing board and add some teeth — these ideas and others — to their well-intentioned attempt to protect taxpayers. If not, the protections afforded now will still allow the bad seeds of the world to get off Scot free while you and I as taxpayers won’t.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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