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Foss: Response to allegations against Sen. Klein inadequate

Foss: Response to allegations against Sen. Klein inadequate

Governor should seek independent body to investigate
Foss: Response to allegations against Sen. Klein inadequate
Sen. Jeff Klein (D-N.Y.), who formed the Independent Democratic Conference, in New York on Aug. 22, 2012.
Photographer: James Estrin/The New York Times

It's easy to sound outraged about sexual harassment. 

Outrage is the tone Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck when addressing the subject in his State of the State speech earlier this month. 

"Our country is finally taking a long look in the mirror as to how we treat women," Cuomo thundered. "And we are disgusted with what we see, and we should see. Our challenge is to now turn society's revulsion into reform." 

Strong, forceful words, to be sure. 

But actions speak louder than words, and state leaders have been strangely muted, even defensive, when addressing the sexual harassment allegation against state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, the head of the Independent Democratic Conference. 

"I know Sen. Klein to be a good and decent person who treats others with respect," Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, said. 

Oh, OK, then. 

I guess there's nothing to see here. 

As for the governor, he issued a statement describing the allegation as "disturbing." 

What was odd was how Cuomo also made a point of saying that he agreed with Klein's call for an immediate and independent investigation. Klein is hardly a disinterested party — he stands accused of forcibly kissing a staffer, and his opinion of what should or shouldn't happen simply doesn't matter.    

At least, it shouldn't matter to Cuomo. 

Now, nobody's denying that Klein is entitled to a fair and impartial investigation. 

He is. 

What's troubling is that so many of the people speaking out on the accusations appear to be taking Klein's side, even though the charges have yet to be fully investigated. 

Also troubling is the widespread confusion that has greeted the very idea of an investigation. 

The staffer's accusation should have kicked off an investigatory process that was clear, orderly and well-understood. 

Instead, the opposite occurred, with officials seemingly baffled by a pretty basic question: What is the appropriate avenue for investigating a sexual harassment charge against a legislative member? 

You'd think, in the year 2018, the answer to this question — an answer most private-sector workplaces can easily furnish — would be obvious. 

But it's not, which is a testament to the Legislature's complete and utter failure to take allegations of misconduct seriously.  

Flanagan has said that the Senate does not have jurisdiction in the matter; even if it did, three IDC members (one of whom happens to be Klein's girlfriend, Sen. Diane Savino) sit on the Senate's ethics committee. Savino and her fellow IDC members signed a statement supporting Klein, so there's really no hope that they could preside over an impartial investigation.  

Klein has asked the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to investigate the matter, but JCOPE is an imperfect option — quasi, rather than truly, independent. 

If JCOPE did determine that the investigations against Klein were credible, it would send a report to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which would then decide whether to enforce a judgment against Klein. In other words, Klein's colleagues in the Legislature would ultimately be the ones tasked with determining whether to make a judgment against him — a true conflict of interest if ever there was one. 

What's needed is an independent body to investigate sexual harassment complaints in state government — something Cuomo called for in his State of the State speech, and which should be created sooner rather than later. 

Creating an independent body to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct won't undo the state's poor response to the Klein allegations. 

But it might prevent a similarly poor response in the future.  

If Cuomo wants voters to take him seriously on sexual harassment, he must do more than sound outraged when discussing the issue in vague, hypothetical terms. He needs to provide leadership when state government is roiled by a sexual misconduct allegation.

So far, he's failed to do that. 

Correction: The number of people enrolled in the Center for Problem Gambling's treatment program rose from 34 in February 2017 to 54 in December. In my Sunday column I got that first number wrong — which obviously threw off the math by more than a little bit. Thanks to the readers who pointed out this mistake. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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