Silver scolds Kellner

silver-scolds-kellner
Sheldon Silver. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver embraced the recommendations of the chamber's Ethics Committee after it found evidence of improper behavior by an Assembly Democrat that occurred in 2009 and 2011.

Around 7:20 p.m. on Monday, Silver released a letter publicly admonishing Micah Kellner for comments toward his staff in 2009 and 2011 that “created a hostile work environment.”

As the New York Times detailed this summer, Kellner, a Democrat from Manhattan, exchanged flirtatious electronic messages with an aide in 2009. She brought her concerns to one of Silver's lawyers, who did not refer them to the chamber's Ethics Committee. The lawyer, Bill Collins, subsequently stepped down. Another aide expressed similar concerns two years later, but did not pursue them formally.

"The findings of the Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee concerning the conduct of Assemblymember Kellner are deeply disturbing and I am immediately implementing all of its recommendations," Silver said in a statement. "Let me be clear – this type of behavior is not to be tolerated."

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A review by the Ethics Committee, which has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, substantiated the complaints and said Kellner's conduct was “unbecoming of a member of the Assembly and reflects poorly on the entire body.” It recommended Kellner be removed as chairman of the Committee on Libraries, barred from employing interns and submit to rigorous sexual harassment training. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, immediately acted on the recommendations and additionally froze his allocation to hire additional staff.

Kellner did not return a phone call or e-mail seeking comment, but he apologized this summer for conduct he acknowledged was “inappropriate.”

After newspaper reports about the allegations, Kellner lost a Democratic primary for New York City Council against Ben Kallos, who will be sworn in this week.

But Kellner's case was one of three that came to a head this year involving Democrats in the Assembly, and fueled criticism of Silver's handling of such complaints. Critics charge the longtime leader has fostered a culture where sexual harassment is tolerated.

Earlier this month, four women who are or were employed by Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, a Democrat from suburban Buffalo, alleged he made unwelcome sexually suggestive comments toward them. The women have filed notice of their intention to sue; Silver said he was unaware of the allegations until they surfaced in the Albany Times-Union, but has since referred them to the Ethics Committee.

In 2012, Republicans attacked Silver's handling of two rounds of sexual harassment complaints against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat. Silver approved a confidential settlement with two young women who said they were inappropriately touched and ogled by Lopez without referring their complaints to the Ethics Committee. Lopez went on to harass two other women, who claimed in a lawsuit that Silver's handling of the first round of complaints emboldened Lopez's behavior.

Despite criticism from Republicans and some Democrats, Silver has soldiered on as the chamber's longtime leader. There is rising concern that the incidents could distract his ability to push his conference's agenda, but no clear challenger has emerged to his speakership.

Silver apologized for mistakes, after two independent reviews focused on his conduct in the Lopez case, and has since been working on an update to the Assembly's sexual harassment guidelines. The Ethics Committee urged him to complete the update “as soon as possible.”