‘Bond Girl’ Talk and Groping: Albany’s Toxic Culture for Women

A legislative aide in New York’s state capital grabbed the thigh of a lobbyist so hard at a fund-raiser that he left finger-shaped bruises on her skin. A top official at a state agency projected a picture of a colleague in a bikini for all to see in a meeting she was attending.

Another lobbyist described a legislator touching her thighs and feeling her chest in his State Assembly office. And a state senator said a male colleague told her she looked “like a Bond girl” as they sat near each other in the chamber.

The senator, Julia Salazar, who declined to identify her colleague, also recalled attending a fund-raiser just outside the Capitol in 2019 where another legislator’s staff member began commenting on her appearance. “He said, ‘You should be on a calendar,’” recalled Ms. Salazar, who was 28 at the time. “I was so embarrassed that I left.”

If encounters like these are unacceptable and potentially career-ending, especially in the #MeToo era, they are also a defining part of the culture of government in Albany, N.Y., and so endemic that they have continued even after sex scandals took down a governor (Eliot Spitzer) and several members of the State Assembly. Sexual misconduct in Albany has been thrown into sharp relief by allegations against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from multiple current and former aides who have accused him of sexual harassment and, in one case, groping during an encounter in the Executive Mansion.

“There are all of these patterns that we just keep seeing over and over again,” said Leah Hebert, a former state legislative aide and a member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which advocates better workplace conditions in New York. “You could definitely look at Albany and say nothing has changed.”

Yet the allegations, which Mr. Cuomo has denied, also suggest that a new generation of women in Albany will not remain silent or tolerate behaviors that many men there saw as normal. And the sexualized environment in many offices has changed recently with the election of liberal women in greater numbers and efforts like harassment training. The #MeToo world is different from when most lawmakers knew their behavior at a bar near the Capitol would be protected by the unwritten rules of the so-called Bear Mountain Compact — what happened on the other side of the mountain stayed there.

In more than 30 interviews, women and men who have worked in Albany — including aides, lobbyists, government officials and elected leaders — described a predatory and misogynistic culture that is of a piece with Mr. Cuomo’s alleged behavior. Some say the governor and his top aides normalized intimidation in Albany over the last decade through bullying, which was common in the governor’s office, and aggressive political tactics aimed at members of both parties.

“There’s a whole community of very smart people who are jaded by the abusive behavior and accept it as normal and don’t do anything about it,” said State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who worked in the governor’s office before she was elected in 2018 among a group of new and outspoken female senators who included Ms. Salazar and Jessica Ramos.

She argued that the behavior of the governor and his staff sent a signal to others in Albany. “If they see the person at the highest level get away with it, and they align themselves with that person, then they’ll get away with it too,” Ms. Biaggi said.

Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, said that Ms. Biaggi had “chronically misrepresented her role” during her “brief time” in the governor’s office, that “the governor did not substantively interact with her,” and that “the majority of the senior staff never knew who she was.”

In interviews for this article, several women described unwanted advances, touching and attempts at kisses by lawmakers or state officials, sometimes during meetings or at bars after hours. Sexualized comments are especially prevalent, and instances of mistreatment remain unreported or unpunished. Several women expressed fear they would face career-ending ostracism — or even retaliation — in the close-knit state capital if they spoke out, and most spoke for this article on the condition of anonymity to protect themselves from repercussions.

Those interviewed said there were also subtler daily indignities: sexual innuendo and the expectation, still, that women wear skirts and heels.

“Female advocates who were in Birkenstocks and pants are less likely to get a legislator to talk to them than a lobbyist in heels and a skirt,” said one female lobbyist, who said legislators would often pause a conversation to comment on her legs.

Some women said they had adopted personal rules to cope: no meetings after 7 p.m. No staying in Albany for longer than a day. Several female lobbyists said they would not meet with certain legislators alone, even in their offices.

There are also more formal measures: Interns in the State Assembly are banned from any event with alcohol, or from even riding in a car alone with an Assembly member; tough new state laws on sexual harassment went into effect in 2019; and the Legislature held its first hearing on the issue in decades that year.

Yet even as regulations have gotten stricter, no single code of conduct appears to exist in practice. Many women described how their experiences often depended on the men in the offices where they worked. Some agencies and lawmakers had reputations for bad behavior; others were safe and supportive.

Ms. Salazar, a Democrat who represents a part of Brooklyn, said she believed the election of more women had dampened the culture of overt harassment. But even so, Ms. Salazar, who joined the Legislature in 2019, said she had experienced sexualized comments that were inappropriate at best. She said she felt that her status as a lawmaker had allowed her to walk away from sexualized interactions without fearing consequences — something that might not be possible for those with less authority.

On one occasion, Ms. Salazar said, an older Republican senator who sat near her in the chamber told her, “You look like a Bond girl.” She said that “it seemed odd for my male colleague to say that.” The same senator, who is now retired, was also known to turn around in his chair and openly stare at women, she said. (She asked that he not be identified.)

Many women said inappropriate behavior often occurred after hours, when aides, lawmakers and other officials attend alcohol-fueled events that segue into nights at the city’s bars.

While many women said their experiences of sexual harassment were not unique to Albany, the misconduct permeates in the capital because of an almost college-campus atmosphere. People who are often far from home work together all day, then go to the same fund-raisers or events, then go out on the town together.

“These days, any one of us in this place could be accused,” the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, said during an emergency video conference meeting in March about the allegations against Mr. Cuomo. (Mr. Heastie’s spokesman said the speaker had been talking about the need for due process for the accused, not about bad behavior by his Democratic caucus members.)

Consensual sexual encounters are not uncommon, nor are office romances, even for senior officials.

“Have I dated people that I’ve come across, you know, at work? Sure,” Robert Mujica, a top adviser to Mr. Cuomo and the state budget director, told an interviewer from City and State last year. Mr. Mujica did not respond to a request for comment.

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable settings for women is during an annual trip to Puerto Rico, when a who’s who of New York politicians and lobbyists flock to the island to mingle at the beach or cut deals over mojitos at a hotel bar.

For many women, the weekend is difficult to navigate because the lines between government business and socializing are often blurred. Some women said they were deliberate about not drinking too much to avoid being taken advantage of. Others said they had to endure a weekend of ogling, despite their best efforts not to stand out.

“I was absolutely keen on dressing to not grab attention,” said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, recalling going on the trip as a young staff member. “Dark colors, blend in with the background.”

A lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, recalled two clients telling her at the conclave that Mr. Mujica liked her, with the suggestion that she could use that to their advantage in trying to get what they wanted in the budget.

In work settings in Albany, too, several women described being aggressively pursued by lawmakers and their aides.

One lobbyist said she was groped and harassed at a fund-raiser in 2018 by a top legislative aide to State Senator Simcha Felder; the person grabbed her so hard on the thigh, she said, that she had finger-shaped bruises. The woman filed an incident report with the police and her boss notified the aide’s employer.

The woman said she had spoken to New York State’s ethics commission, known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, just once, in early 2019, about its inquiry into the assault. She believes the investigation is ongoing but does not know for sure, underscoring what many say is a frustrating lack of transparency around such inquiries.

Several state employees who came forward with complaints over sexual harassment in recent years say they were demoted or fired as a result.

“If you want to survive you have to, to some degree, accept it,” said Patricia Gunning, a lawyer and former inspector general at a state agency who reported what she said was misconduct. “And I did. Until it became intrusive and invasive in my work.”

In 2017, Ms. Gunning publicly accused Jay Kiyonaga, a top official at her agency, the Justice Center for the Protection of People With Special Needs, of creating a toxic frat-house culture in which harassment was normalized. She said that after she spoke up, she was forced out of the agency.

Ms. Gunning, who is suing the state for retaliation, said other women who had suffered mistreatment at the agency watched what happened to her when she spoke out. “What they witnessed, with me coming forward, was the message: Don’t do it,” she said. “It destroyed my career in public service.”

In one instance, Mr. Kiyonaga started a meeting by projecting an image of a female co-worker in a bikini, which he had found on social media, to those in attendance, who included the woman, according to a person who was in the meeting. He eventually took the image down, playing it off as a joke.

As a senior agency official, Ms. Gunning sought help from Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top aide — motivated, she said, after seeing Ms. DeRosa speak out forcefully against sexual harassment. Ms. DeRosa directed her inquiry to the state inspector general.

Mr. Kiyonaga was fired in 2018 for sexual harassment but still collected a salary from the state until last year because of an arbitration proceeding. A lawyer for Mr. Kiyonaga declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Ms. Gunning’s lawyer has struggled to obtain emails about her that were sent between the agency and Mr. Cuomo’s office. Those emails have so far been withheld by the state’s lawyers, citing executive privilege in most instances. A spokeswoman said the Justice Center stood by the firing of Mr. Kiyonaga, calling his behavior “abhorrent,” but declined to comment on the case.

The same executive privilege argument has been used by the state’s lawyers in the case of another state employee, Gina Bianchi, who said she was fired from her senior-level job in 2017 after speaking to an inspector general as part of an investigation into sexual harassment in her agency, the Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The governor’s office also communicated with agency leadership in that case, Ms. Bianchi’s lawyer said, and those communications have also so far been withheld. An agency spokeswoman declined to comment.

The past year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, had been something of a welcome relief for some women: With work largely remote, there were no events to go to, no nights in bars.

Tori Kelly, the chief of staff to State Senator Andrew Gounardes, said she much preferred working from her home in Brooklyn and attending Zoom fund-raisers to being in Albany.

“Not having to go up is a much safer proposition for me,” said Ms. Kelly, who is also a member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group.

At the same time, many women said there were signs that Albany’s culture might be starting to improve.

Aravella Simotas, a former Assemblywoman, said she had noticed male lawmakers becoming more engaged during sexual harassment trainings when the sessions began to be held in smaller group settings. Before, she said, more than 100 lawmakers would be convened simultaneously for the training and many would not pay attention, staring at their phones or doodling on notepads.

The female lobbyist who said she was groped and harassed at the 2018 fund-raiser said she could see a change in Albany in 2019, after a host of liberal young women were elected to office. Now when she goes to meetings, she said, she feels “safer.”

Amy Paulin, a Democratic assemblywoman who was first elected in 2000 and represents Westchester County, said she witnessed frequent and conspicuous inappropriate behavior during her early days in the capital, including a senator groping women who were on their way to the bathroom.

“I don’t think it’s gone away, but I do think it is a lot less,” she said. “The culture has changed — it’s no longer something to joke about.”