Coalescing in the balm and mist outside his Morris Park office last week, a coalition of grassroots groups decried state Sen. Jeffrey Klein after an ex-staffer accused him of forcibly kissing her outside an Albany bar in 2015.
Expressing solidarity with the former policy analyst Erica Vladimer, they called for a thorough, independent investigation of her allegations — as well as any others that may arise. And if nothing else, they believe Klein should step down immediately.
“Anyone who’s experienced sexual assault or harassment, you do go through a negotiation of sorts,” said Tasha Young of the Lower Hudson Valley Progressive Network. “‘Was it my fault? Was it what I thought it was? Did that just happen?’ And always, the end question is, ‘Do I say something?’ And, ‘What are the repercussions for speaking out?’”
For far too long, many women have grappled with these questions alone, despite the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. But in light of the scandal that brought down movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the “Me Too” movement may have given Vladimer courage she needed “to have her voice be heard and respected,” Young said.
“The ‘Me Too’ movement has unified women in lifting our voices, in saying ‘Enough is enough — we will be heard,’” Young said. “‘We want to be ensured of safe spaces, and we no longer need to wonder if this guy is going to act improperly and cause me emotional or sexual distress.’”
Just before news first broke last week of Vladimer’s accusation, Klein vehemently denied such an incident took place. While he admits he joined several staffers and girlfriend, Sen. Diane Savino, at a bar after the budget was passed in April 2015, the alcohol-induced kiss Vladimer claims happened, didn’t, Klein said.
Vladimer told HuffPost she had gone outside the bar to smoke a cigarette, and Klein joined her. While they were outside, Klein grabbed her head and “shoved his tongue” down her throat.
Vladimer said she immediately pushed Klein away and went back inside, leaving the bar not long after, and relaying what happened that night to a friend. Klein agrees he was outside the bar at the same time as Vladimer to smoke, but that the kiss never happened.
Vladimer did not return multiple requests for comment.
Klein requested an independent investigation into Vladimer’s allegation in a Jan. 11 letter to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE.
“At this point, this is an allegation in which no formal complaint was ever made,” senate majority leader John Flanagan said. “While it may be within the scope of other entities, an investigation into this matter is not within the jurisdiction of the senate.”
JCOPE wouldn’t answer questions about whether it would take up an investigation, saying the law prevents it from doing so. But it could move forward with an investigation on its own, according to commission spokesman Walter McClure.
In fact, the commission has looked into sexual harassment allegations in the past, including cases involving former legislators Vito Lopez and Dennis Gabryszak.
Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called for an immediate investigation outside the Senate, calling the allegations “extremely disturbing.”
“Too many women are discouraged from coming forward because they fear not being believed and being attacked,” she said in a statement. “We need to confront sexual assault, harassment and inappropriate workplace behavior head-on, and make it clear that it is not acceptable.”
Even Vladimer’s supporters acknowledged “gray areas” when discussing her accusations.
“An unwanted kiss is not a rape,” said Dominique Shuminova of Progressive Women of Pelham. “There is a difference, of course.”
Her group has no interest in a “witch hunt,” where “everyone’s painted with one brush,” she said, cautioning also against jumping to hasty conclusions regarding what happened.
“We were not there that night outside the bar in Albany having a cigarette with them,” Shuminova said. “So I can’t attest to the specifics.”
Nevertheless, it was Klein’s response to Vladimer’s accusations that compelled Shuminova to show up at Friday night’s news conference.
“Discrediting somebody who’s speaking their truth, and their experience of feeling violated — also, jumping to the defense of someone who’s being accused — has demeaned the accuser,” Shuminova said. “Any young woman should feel safe and supported in coming forward.”
The sheer fact people showed up on a rainy Friday night in January was enough to give Samelys Lopez of Bronx Progressives reason to be optimistic. She called it a “great turnout” considering those who were invited received less than 24 hours’ notice.
“That tells you people are outraged, people want to see change, people want to see something different happen,” she said. “And people want to hold their elected officials accountable.”
Alessandra Biaggi, who recently announced she’s challenging Klein for his seat, sees Vladimer’s decision to come forward as an important contribution to the “Me Too” movement.
“It sends a message to Albany, which is very much in need of an awakening, to listen and to stop reacting and start responding,” Biaggi said.
Meanwhile, the movement, and all it stands for, is still developing, Biaggi said.
“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” she said. “How do we navigate this new environment? What are the rules — are there any rules? What are the processes for dealing with when a woman does stand up?”
Klein’s attorney, Michael Zweig, said he and partner Mark Goldberg conducted a preliminary investigation into Vladimer’s allegation on the senator’s behalf, conducting more than 10 separate interviews with present and former staff members. None of the female staff members interviewed “reported ever having felt uncomfortable, unsafe, or threatened by Sen. Klein,” Zweig said, in a memo.
The Loeb & Loeb attorney also noted the bar, then known as Justin’s, has large windows looking outside the street, making it unlikely such a kiss — even outside — would have gone unnoticed by the patrons inside.
“In our view it defies both reason and credibility to suggest Sen. Klein would have, in full view of both his longtime girlfriend, numerous staff members, and in the middle of a very visible and public street, assaulted the former staffer, as her allegation suggests,” the memo concludes.
Klein has pulled in some big guns to protect him. Besides Loeb & Loeb, he also has public relations firm Global Strategy Group helping him with responses to the allegations. After Candice Giove, spokeswoman for Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference group, declined to answer follow-up questions — instead referring to a phone conference with select Albany media last week — Global Strategy vice president Barbara Brancaccio stepped in to talk to The Press.
Brancaccio wouldn’t comment on whether Klein feared Vladimer’s coming forward might open up the proverbial floodgates to other accusers potentially speaking out.
In the meantime, activist Young said she’s not going to let up on Klein until all the pertinent questions about Vladimer’s claims are answered.
“To be honest, I think if we didn’t force (Klein) to, he wouldn’t cooperate,” she said.