ALBANY — New York spent more than $11 million over the past decade settling claims by workers — almost all of them women — who say they were sexually harassed, assaulted or otherwise discriminated against by state employees, according to documents analyzed by the USA TODAY Network's Albany Bureau.
State agencies, universities and colleges settled 84 such cases in court from 2008 through 2017, with payouts to alleged victims ranging from $3,000 to more than $1 million.
The biggest payout was here in Western New York. A cook at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Chautauqua County said she was subject to threats, sexual harassment and gender discrimination. She settled for $1.8 million, with the majority of the money covering almost a decade worth of legal expenses.
"She was diligent," said her attorney Robert L. Boreanaz, a labor and employment lawyer with Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria in Buffalo. "She stayed with it. She was brave."
Types of settlements
The settlements were released under a Freedom of Information request to the state Attorney General's Office, which represents state agencies and the public university system when lawsuit is filed.
They represent cases that were settled after a lawsuit was filed alleging any type of "gender discrimination, discrimination based on sexual orientation, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and/or sexual assault," according to the Attorney General's Office.
Sexual-harassment experts said settlements to end harassment or hostile-workplace complaints are common among major employers such as the state, which employs more than 130,000 at agencies and more than 90,000 in the State University of New York system.
But the payouts don't account for the long-term costs to victims, according to M. Elizabeth Karns, a senior lecturer on social statistics at Cornell University.
"Many people who report (harassment) leave that job or that career path, which means they don’t tend to go into a higher-paying job," said Karns, who has analyzed research about the economic costs of sexual harassment.
"If you are leaving a job because of harassment and stress and things like that that might have prevented your performance, you might go to a different job, which is often a lower-paying job.”
Where were they?
Of the state's settlements, most were concentrated in the agencies with the largest number of employees, including 15 at the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and its predecessors, which manages the state's prison systems.
Fourteen involved cases at SUNY schools, with another nine at City University of New York institutions.
Two were in the state Legislature: $545,000 in 2015 to two former staffers who said then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, repeatedly sexually harassed them; and $50,000 in 2016 to a worker who claimed she was fired by then-Assemblywoman Gabriela Rosa after becoming pregnant.
The list does not include, however, settlements that were reached out of court.
That includes a controversial $103,000 settlement with two of Lopez's previous accusers, which was crafted confidentially by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office. (Lopez died in 2015.)
Nor does it account for another out-of-court settlement in August 2016, when the state Senate cut a $82,000 deal to settle a claim by an employee that has never been released publicly.
Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif declined comment on the nature of the payment, which was made to a law firm that investigates sexual-harassment complaints for the Senate.
It was revealed in a document released by the state Comptroller's Office, which specifies the complaint was not against an elected official.
Policies in place
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration crafted a uniform harassment and discrimination manual in 2011 that applies to all 54 agencies and authorities under its control, according to Alphonso David, counsel to the governor.
And in 2013, Cuomo's administration launched a 10-step process to investigate complaints within 30 days, making it apply to all executive branch agencies and ending a patchwork system that saw each one take a different approach.
Over the past three years, the 54 agencies have received 862 internal complaints alleging sexual harassment, ranging from someone telling a sexually explicit joke to more serious offenses.
Complaints: See the number of internal complaints by agency here
Of those, 305 were substantiated after an investigation and 386 were unsubstantiated, according to data from the Governor's Office of Employee Relations.
The rest remain open, either because they are still under investigation or because the case file lacks some piece of information to close it administratively.
David, the architect of the Cuomo administration's policy, said he was looking for "consistency."
"I was very concerned that certain employees in certain agencies may be treated differently than employees in other agencies, and that didn't make any sense," David said. "If I'm a victim of discrimination in Agency X, I should go through the same process as Agency Y."
SUNY schools, meanwhile, have more leeway to craft their own policies.
SUNY's Central Administration, for example, has a system-wide policy for discrimination complaints and how they're investigated. But individual schools are able to opt-out, as long as they have a plan in place that is approved by SUNY counsel.
Each campus, meanwhile, is required to post the various avenues available to report sexual harassment or abuse complaints, including campus police, Title IX officers and human resources departments, according to SUNY.
"SUNY condemns sexual harassment in all its forms and prevention of any type of harassment, assault, and discrimination is our top priority," SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis said in a statement.
The Executive Chamber, which consists of Cuomo's staffers, has not been the subject of any sexual harassment complaints since the governor took office, David noted.
Cuomo has faced criticism, however, for his hiring of Sam Hoyt, a former state assemblyman from Buffalo whom Cuomo tapped to lead the Western New York office of Empire State Development, the state's economic-development branch.
Hoyt resigned in 2017 as a regional vice president for Empire State Development amid an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint.
Prior to joining Cuomo's administration in 2011, Hoyt was sanctioned by the state Assembly in 2003 after it was revealed he had an "inappropriate personal relationship" with a 23-year-old intern.
Last year, Hoyt abruptly resigned at Empire State Development amid a state investigation into his relationship with a fellow state employee, whom Hoyt had paid $50,000 to remain quiet. The woman has since sued Hoyt and the state, alleging sexual harassment.
Cuomo, meanwhile, has proposed a series of sexual-harassment reforms in his $162 billion state budget proposal, which he and lawmakers will negotiated ahead of the state's March 31 budget deadline.
He's proposed banning state entities from entering confidential harassment settlements — such as the first Vito Lopez settlement and the mysterious $82,000 Senate agreement.
Companies that do business with the state, meanwhile, would be forced to disclose any sexual harassment settlements they've agreed to and whether they've included any non-disclosure agreements.
And, similar to what Cuomo did with the agencies within his control, he's proposed creating a single, uniform sexual-harassment policy and investigation process to apply to all state employees in all branches of government.
David said Cuomo's administration believes strongly in the policy and investigatory process it has implemented, but is open to negotiating with lawmakers on a policy to apply more broadly.
"Our goal is to get to zero," David said. "We think we're doing a great job compared to the number of people that work in state government, and we will constantly work to improve the process and lower the number of substantiated complaints that are found in the state agencies."
Karns, the Cornell lecturer, said the #MeToo movement has changed the conversation about sexual harassment.
The days of accepting harassment and its costs as the price of doing business has started to change, she said.
“The world has changed completely by the use of social media and people stepping up to describe what’s happened to them," Karns said. "It’s something that years of litigation could not have achieved.”