Albany Times-Union, May 13, 2004
Legislative Liaisons Turn Dangerous
Recent Scandals Prompt Calls to Prohibit After-Hours Fraternizing Between Lawmakers, Interns
Erin Duggan

In the wake of at least three sex scandals in three years, the party may be winding down for state lawmakers who have off-the-clock relationships with young interns.

The Assembly may by month's end outlaw booze-infused after-hours partying and sexual relationships between legislators and their 197 interns -- ending what one local politician calls lawmakers' abuse of their mentoring role.

"I believe very strongly that fraternizing between the interns and members should not be allowed," said Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, D-Cohoes, who co-chairs the Assembly intern program. "The interns are here as part of an educational program, and as such, they are under our tutelage."

Canestrari said violators would be punished, but it was not immediately clear how.

Assemblyman David Townsend, R-Rome, is among lawmakers who say they are disgusted by the "foolish" actions of colleagues.

Earlier this week, Townsend suggested to Assembly Minority Leader Charles Nesbitt, R-Albion, that it was time for a closed-door meeting to remind legislators to "stay away from the places where these kids hang out."

Carousing by lawmakers and interns or young staffers is one of Albany's worst-kept secrets. During session, underage employees often drink with their superiors at fund-raisers or local bars, making political -- and sometimes sexual -- connections.

But for three years in a row, an Assembly member or other top official has faced an allegation of inappropriate or illegal sexual relations with a young woman. The most recent incident, involving a 19-year-old intern and Harlem Democrat Adam Clayton Powell IV, 42, is under investigation. The woman told police the tryst was consensual, but her boyfriend pressured her to report it as a rape.

The incident underscores what critics call a social atmosphere ripe for improper liaisons.

Both houses mandate sexual harassment training for legislators, staff and new interns. But the sessions don't deal with after-hours encounters, which can be far more confusing for teenagers new to the halls of power.

The training "didn't seem applicable," and complaints about inappropriate relationships are not taken seriously, said the former Assembly staffer who last year pressed rape charges against J. Michael Boxley, former top counsel to Speaker Sheldon Silver.

"They didn't let on that these would be 50-year-old assemblymen trying to take us out and get us liquored up," said the 22-year-old, who began as an intern and was hired as a staffer.

Eager to make connections with powerful men -- male lawmakers outnumber their female colleagues 4 to 1 -- young women are often thrilled to be invited to the frequent receptions and happy hours at downtown nightspots.

"We definitely wanted to go out with them outside work, to make the connections," she said. "It's like someone saying, 'I'm really good at politics and want to teach you.' What they don't say is 'I'm not interested in you, I just want to get in your pants.' "

Though many lawmakers are married, she said, they seem to abide by the old "Bear Mountain" compact -- anything that happens north of the Bear Mountain Bridge stays upstate.

But another former intern who now works for the state said the young women are not that naive.

"You know what you're doing and you know how to pull it off," she said. "You know what to wear and where (politicians) go."

Most interns are past the age of consent, but attorney Raymond Gregory of Massachusetts said the power difference can lead to problems.

"It doesn't make any difference if it's consensual," said Gregory, author of "Unwelcome and Unlawful: Sexual Harassment in the American Workplace," published earlier this month. "You can have a consensual relationship in the beginning, but that changes. And when it changes, a situation can develop that verges on or crosses the line into sexual harassment."

Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said months ago that the Boxley scandal should be a wake-up call for the Legislature to review sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures. Senate complaints, she noted, go to the secretary of the Senate.

"That is not necessarily an independent arbiter, especially given the political nature of this place," said Krueger. "Is having the No. 2 person to the majority leader in the Senate (review complaints) a reasonable expectation of resolution?"

Senate officials said they have never had a complaint; the Assembly refused to say anything. A former intern and an assemblyman said complaints of harassment sometimes are unofficially smoothed over.

An assemblyman who asked not to be identified said that five years ago an intern was transferred to his office because she "had a problem" with another assemblyman. Others familiar with the situation said the intern had complained about unwanted sexual advances by her initial boss.

Silver spokesman Charles Carrier said the Assembly's policy on harassment has been under review for some time. Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said that chamber is pleased with its policy.

"We have regular sexual harassment training sessions, and we feel our policy is appropriate," Hansen said.

Krueger said Wednesday that the training should focus more on what takes place after work.

"The message is not clearly sent to interns that going out and partying with legislators is not a mechanism to increase your career or professional opportunities in this city," said Krueger.

And Townsend said state lawmakers should know better.

"There used to be a saying that 17 would get you 20," Townsend continued. "We ought to start telling these people that an intern will get you life. Not life in prison, but it will ruin your life. Use some common sense."

Elizabeth Benjamin contributed to this story.