The controversy over the City Council’s decision to suspend rather than expel Bronx Council Member Andy King following a second round of substantiated charges that he harassed his staff showed no signs of dying down even as his suspension came to an end.
At the Council’s Oct. 29 meeting it imposed a 30-day suspension without pay on Mr. King along with a $15,000 fine and the imposition of a monitor over his office’s operations until the end of his term.
Not Nearly Enough
But those sanctions were wholly inadequate, according to more than 70 Council staffers and their supporters who assembled on the steps of City Hall on Nov. 26 holding posters that read “Harassment Free NYCC.” Several of the speakers asserted Mr. King’s misconduct was emblematic of systemic issues the Council had yet to fully address.
Also present were members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which was started by seven state legislative staffers who experienced, witnessed, or reported sexual harassment by former Assembly Members Vito Lopez and Micah Kellner, former Counsel to Speaker Sheldon Silver Michael Boxley, and State Sen. Jeff Klein.
Current and former Council staffers read from statements submitted by current staffers who, because they feared retaliation, wanted to remain anonymous.
“I have watched for a month as Council Member King has appeared publicly in his community—embraced, able to promote himself—while reinforcing that we staffers who spoke our truth are liars,” wrote one of the staffers.
Politico reported that during the suspension the Bronx Councilman was behaving as if it were business as usual, “gallivanting around his district, handing out proclamations and appearing for photo-ops alongside elected officials such as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, Rep. Eliot Engel, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.”
Efforts to reach the Council Member via social media were unsuccessful and a call to his office was not returned.
The internal Council ethics probe into Mr. King was sparked by the discovery that in violation of the Council’s workplace policies, he terminated a staffer who had accused him of sexual harassment in 2015, a charge that was substantiated in 2017.
Included in the latest round of substantiated charges were allegations that Mr. King “repeatedly intimidated and punished staff” to prevent them from cooperating with the internal probe, and “routinely required” staffers to use their personal vehicles to chauffeur him to work-related events “without reimbursement for gas or maintenance expenses.”
The panel found that he allowed “a culture of fear” and “intimidation” to take hold in his offices.
Accuser Steps Forward
Prior to the Council’s vote, in a Daily News op-ed, Chloe Rivera, a senior Legislative Policy Analyst with the Council Committee on Women and Gender Equity and Higher Education, demanded the Council oust Mr. King because it had to “establish a standard that worker abuse and witness intimidation and retaliation will not be tolerated, that repeat abusers are unfit to serve and will be removed from office.”
“In the report, I am the ‘2017 complainant,’ ” she wrote. “During the investigation, evidence revealed that in 2017, King held a staff meeting at his home, where he outed me as the staffer who reported him for gender-based harassment. The Ethics Committee found my allegations to be credible and substantiated my complaint the following year.”
She continued, “In the meeting where King outed me, he also attacked my credibility. He claimed I had a ‘track record’ of making complaints because I previously reported sexual harassment while working as a legislative aide to former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, an infamous repeat sexual harasser who resigned from office in 2012 following threats of expulsion.”
In 2015 Ms. Rivera and another former Lopez staffer and victim settled their pending lawsuit against him and then-Speaker Sheldon Silver for $585,000.
‘Speak for Those Who Can’t’
On the steps of City Hall Nov. 26, Ms. Rivera told reporters that she felt an obligation to come forward because she had already publicly surfaced during her efforts to hold the late Mr. Lopez and Mr. Silver accountable.
“I realized that since I went through this process, I already had my face” out there on this issue and so could “speak on behalf of staff who cannot speak out,” she said. “And I can say that the moment I felt most empowered was during this press conference.”
The formation of the Harassment Free NYCC Committee came about as dozens of people were also working on a union organizing drive for the Council staff, which includes 366 employees with the central office and 409 who serve at the pleasure of the individual Council Members.
“So, this movement is coordinating with the unionization effort and is in support of it,” Ms. Rivera told reporters after the rally. I believe the union will protect staff…but at this moment it is very important that we get change immediately.”
‘Not Just Harassment’
“Obviously some of the issues we saw in Councilman King’s office are not just issues of harassment but of low pay and isolation,” said Zara Nasir, a central City Council staffer who is part of the union organizing campaign. “So, we are very supportive of the Harassment Free NYCC folks...who are working with the Sexual Harassment Working Group...on reforms that can happen outside the unionization process.”
Under the current arrangement, all Council staffers are outside the civil-service system and considered “at will” employees who can be terminated at any time.
Advocates say there is a link between the lack of workplace protections for jobs on legislative staffs and the inability of workers to come forward to report incidents of sexual harassment or worse.
At the rally, Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou declared that Albany’s legislative staff were in a similarly marginal situation when it came to the terms and conditions of their employment.
“Did you know on the state level, all our staffers are ‘at will’ employees?” she asked. “That’s what they tell us. They don’t even have to have a reason to be fired. They don’t even have a centralized HR system.”
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