By MICHAEL GORMLEY | Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- New York taxpayers paid more than $5 million in the last two years to settle more than a dozen sexual harassment cases against state workers, according to records obtained Thursday.
The cases include $1.79 million paid to a woman who worked for the state prisons system in western New York. The incident reported in 2000 was settled in 2009, with $1.1 million of the payout going to attorney fees, according to the first batch of records provided to The Associated Press under the state Freedom of Information Law.
Payouts in cases identified in records so far against state employees begin at $125,000.
The records from the attorney general's office were requested following the disclosure of $103,000 in public money paid to settle a sex harassment claim against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat. That case was settled by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in June and included a confidentiality agreement sought by the two accusers. It surfaced Aug. 24, after the Assembly ethics committee censured Lopez for separate accusations by two women dating to July.
Silver has said he won't agree to any other private settlements because government must be transparent. The case against Lopez, who denies sexually harassing anyone, forced the issue of sexual harassment in Albany into public view. The Lopez cases are now being reviewed by the state ethics board.
The records obtained Thursday didn't involve any elected officials. They show that the state employees accused of sexual harassment paid a fraction of the cost, as little as $333 in a total settlement of $333,000.
The records so far show that the settlements were made in cases involving the Department of Corrections, the State University of New York, the City University of New York, the Office of Mental Health and a psychiatric hospital.
Few details of the harassment were reported in the legal papers signed by state officials and attorneys for the accusers, the vast majority of whom are women. Sexual harassment was reported in areas as diverse as prison kitchens and in college buildings.
"We'll be providing additional cases as we collect them in response to your FOIL request," said James Freedland, spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
Although the incidents date back to 2000, the documents released Thursday reflect settlements signed between 2008 and 2010. The cases before 2011 were handled under former Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Additional settlements were handled by current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in what appears to be a routine function of state government.
On Thursday, Gov. Cuomo's office responded to its FOIL request from the AP by saying it has no record of sexual harassment settlements for employees in the executive chamber. The Senate's Republican majority and the Assembly's Democratic majority said they don't have records of any sexual harassment settlements based on claims against lawmakers.
Most of the cases were handled in U.S. District Court. But sexual harassment cases in state and local government are also handled by the state Division of Human Rights. Records there show settlements of as much as $700,000 in public money paid by the state in the last five years.
In the $1.79 million settlement, a cook at the Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility accused her boss of sexual harassment stemming from an incident in 2000 and another in 2005. She also accused her boss of retaliation after she made the claims, the record stated.
Included in her payment was $140,000 in back pay and $1.1 million for her attorney fees and signed an "irrevocable letter of resignation," dated Jan. 14, 2009.
"The $5 million paid by the state is indicative of how pervasive sexual harassment is in the state's workplace and demonstrates the state's failure to strictly enforce the law, which exists for the protection of its employees," said attorney Gloria Allred, who represented two of Lopez's accusers. "The state should have a zero tolerance policy for any state employee who creates or permits the existence of a sexually hostile work environment."