In early 1950, Lucille Ball discovered she was pregnant. She and her husband, Desi Arnez, broke the news to her previous employer, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, and then went to see Cecil B. DeMille, who had just cast the redhead in his upcoming circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth. Now the great impresario would have to change his plans. Furious, he turned to Desi: “Congratulations. You are the only person in the world to screw Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, Paramount, Cecil B. DeMille, and your wife, all at the same time.” Half a century later, such a spectacular feat has recurred. This time, though, it’s New York politicians playing Desi and the citizens of New York who are . . . well, getting screwed.
Up in Albany, Sheldon Silver is speaker of the Democrat-controlled assembly—just the sort of guy a hard-line feminist could love, ever eager to promote laws punishing cads who take advantage of women. Thus, his fellow solons must have been shocked—shocked—to see Silver hit with a civil lawsuit for “tolerating a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace.” Furthering the irony, Silver in his spare time is counsel to Weitz and Luxenberg, one of New York’s most influential law firms, known to prosecute torts like the one confronting the speaker.
The civil suit, brought by former legislative aide “Jane Doe,” charges that last year Silver’s then-chief counsel, J. Michael Boxley, took her out drinking and then raped her while she was intoxicated. Boxley lost his counsel job after police arrested him on the rape charges. In a plea bargain, he admitted to a lesser charge of sexual misconduct and got six years’ probation, plus a $1,000 fine and a stipulation that he register with the state as a sex offender. The suit notes that sexual wrongdoing charges had swirled around Boxley before. In 2001, another former aide, Elizabeth Crothers, accused him of raping her, though she declined to press formal charges.
The Crothers complaint, the suit argues, should have sounded the tocsin for Silver, especially since Crothers had asked Silver to appoint an independent investigator to look into her accusation. The speaker flatly refused, however. Instead, he assigned one of Boxley’s own aides to the task. Meanwhile, Silver avowed his “utmost personal confidence” in his chief counsel. According to the suit, Silver said that “his first concern was the ‘appearance’ of the assembly and that Boxley would not be ‘out at bars’ anymore, reasoning that is where the ‘improprieties’ occur.”
Boxley must have kept up with his barhopping, though, since the solons are blaming the counsel’s 2003 “improprieties” on Albany’s swinging nightlife, too. “It’s not the responsibility of the institution—what happens off campus,” sneered Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg about the civil sexual harassment suit. “We didn’t put her in a bar.” Perhaps the “bars-made-me-do-it” defense also will be East Harlem Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV’s excuse. He’s under investigation upstate for getting a 19-year-old intern drunk (New York’s legal drinking age is 21) and bringing her back to his hotel room for some hanky-panky. She initially accused him of rape but later told police that the sex was consensual. Albany County District Attorney Paul Clyne issued a warning in May that any father who would let his daughter be an intern in the assembly ought to “have his head examined.”
The assembly isn’t New York’s only political body to come under fire for tolerating sexual misconduct. Last year, two staffers of the New York City Council filed federal sexual harassment complaints against Councilman Allan Jennings. This prompted the council to bring in an outside consultant to probe the Queens Democrat’s actions. The consultant couldn’t corroborate the allegations but did conclude that Jennings had made “both anti-Semitic and gender-inappropriate remarks” to a third employee, council lawyer Saphor Lifrak. The consultant also cited a fourth staffer who claimed that Jennings had sexually harassed her. Lifrak has slapped a suit on council speaker Gifford Miller for allowing the bad behavior to fester and for calling her a liar.
Lest you think that sexual delinquency is their only moral fault, New York pols practice other deadly sins as well—above all, good old-fashioned graft. Last year alone, Bronx Assemblywoman Gloria Davis had to resign after pleading guilty to bribery charges, Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Clarence Norman, Jr. was indicted for trying to coerce judicial candidates into hiring party-picked consultants, and Assemblyman Roger L. Green, also of Brooklyn, pled guilty to petty larceny for accepting state reimbursement for travel expenses he didn’t incur.
Silver refuses to release his own ethics committee’s report on Green’s bad behavior, reportedly because the ex-lawmaker wants to make a political comeback and the speaker doesn’t want to embarrass him. Why should the public have a right to know what their pols do? And what are narrow legalities and nitpicking ethics rules among friends? Indeed, earlier this year, Silver himself stayed at a luxury suite at Las Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace, whose owners want to open a casino in New York. Price for you: $1,500 a night. Price for Shelly: $109 a night. Silver and other Albany pols also enjoyed special discounts courtesy of the Avis rent-a-car people, who likewise had pressing business with the state legislature. The speaker’s savings: $340. Avis shelled out $15,000 in fines for their (little) gift. Big sum, small sum, it’s all just part of the cost of doing business in New York, where politicians have set up a pay-to-play system to rival Uganda’s.
It’s a cliché that New York politics—rotten with special interests, venality, and undemocratic procedures—seems like a conspiracy to screw the public. These days, that may not just be a metaphor.