It’s never been quite clear why the New York State Assembly’s legal team didn’t start investigating Assembyman Micah Kellner in 2009, when he was first accused of sexually harassing a female employee. It took until this summer, when the New York Times revealed that Kellner, a Democrat from the Upper East Side, had made inappropriate remarks to his female subordinate during online games of Words with Friends, including “I like being the only man in your life” (after pressing to find out if she had a boyfriend) and “”I wouldn’t mind falling asleep with you but not remotely. Did I offend?”
The woman reported the harassment to her supervisor, who in turn handed over 15 pages of chat transcripts to Bill Collins, who headed up the Assembly’s legal staff. And there the matter rested, until yesterday.
The New York Times report revealed that the Assembly’s legal staff never began a formal inquiry into Kellner’s behavior, and that they never referred the matter to the body’s ethics panel. In the meantime, the Daily News alleges that Kellner continued his pattern of harassment with a male employee, making “repeated sexual advances” until the man eventually quit.
After the NYT article was published, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said that he’d finally heard about the allegations a month before — in June of 2013, four years later — and that Bill Collins, the lawyer who received the complaints, would be fired. He also promised that the matter would be referred to the ethics panel posthaste. (Correction, 5 p.m.: Michael Whyland, Silver’s press secretary, tells us the matter was referred to the ethics panel before the NYT story was published, writing, “It should be noted that Speaker Silver immediately referred the case to the Ethics Committee as soon as he learned of the matter in early June.” We regret the error.)
Part of Silver’s speed seemingly has to do with the embarassing surplus of harass-y Assemblymen stalking the halls. Kellner’s is one of three cases this year involving Assembly Democrats sexually harassing whoever’s nearby; the other two are Vito Lopez, who stepped down in May after a series of reports on his harassment of female staff members, and Dennis Gabryszak, who the Albany Times-Union reported earlier this month is also being accused of sexual advances by some of his female aides, who are planning to sue him.
For his part, Kellner was undaunted, running for City Council and, in October, using his campaign mailers to call the sexual harassment accusations “grossly distorted and blown out of proportion.” He did “sincerely apologize,” he added, “for any distraction they may have caused.” The Working Families Party, on whose ticket Kellner was running, and who had endorsed him earlier in the campaign, was so exasperated they sent an email telling everyone not to vote for him. Kellner lost.
Yesterday, the ethics panel finally released their findings and recommendations, namely that Kellner had violated the Assembly’s sexual harassment policies and that his comments, “together with other conduct, created a hostile work environment.” The “other conduct” piece is not further specified.
The panel recommended that Kellner be immediately removed as chair of the Libraries and Education Technology Committee. He’ll also have to undergo a whole bunch of sexual harassment training, and an independent investigator will conduct at least “semi-annual” reviews to make sure his office is a harassment-free zone. He also will no longer be allowed to have any interns. In a fun coincidence, Dennis Gabryszak was also told yesterday that he won’t be allowed any interns either.
Kellner hasn’t commented on the sanctions against him, and he probably won’t.
The full letter from the ethics panel on Kellner, with their findings and recommendations is on the following page
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.