We need new institutional structures to fight sexual harassment

Photo Credit: brigthstarusa1

This month, three major institutions -- the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army and the New York State Assembly -- have become embroiled in controversies involving allegations of sexual assault and harassment from powerful individuals within their ranks.

First, we learned that the head of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, had been charged with sexual assault. Not two weeks later, the Army announced that Army Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen, who was serving as the sexual-assault prevention coordinator at Fort Hood in Texas, is being investigated for "pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault, and maltreatment of subordinates."

And then came a 68-page report that reviews in painstaking detail allegations, first revealed last summer, of chronic abuse made by female staffers against Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn). The report, written by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, concludes that Lopez "engaged in an escalating course of conduct with respect to multiple female staff members . . . that began with demeaning comments about appearance and dress . . . and culminated in attempted and forced intimate contact." On Friday, Lopez said he will resign from the Assembly.

It's striking that in all three cases, the institutional structures designed to protect victims failed in large part because the process for reviewing the complaints was internal and compromised by built-in conflicts of interest.

In both cases involving the armed forces, the alleged perpetrators were in charge of preventing the very types of abuses they are now accused of committing. This troubling fact raises serious questions about whether it is time to create an independent office, outside of the military's regular chain of command, charged with investigating such allegations and protecting the complainants. While military leaders oppose this idea, as does Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, some members of Congress have expressed support. Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and a bipartisan group of legislators unveiled a bill that would change how the military deals with such cases, including taking any that could carry a penalty of at least a year in prison out of the military chain of command.

There's a similar problem in the New York State Assembly case -- an internal process subject to built-in conflicts of interest that resulted in protection for the alleged perpetrator, while doing little to protect the alleged victims. The JCOPE report contains a fairly scathing indictment of Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and his staff, who are brought to task not only for protecting Lopez, but for failing to follow their own rules to investigate and failing to refer the allegations to the ethics committee.

As the report states, "the first two complaints against Lopez . . . were not referred promptly to the Assembly Ethics Committee. In addition, before entering into the Settlement Agreement, there was no investigation into the allegations, nor were there any other measures taken to protect Lopez's remaining female staff."

If these original complaints had been handled properly, it would have been much harder for Lopez to hire two new female staffers in April 2012. According to the report, these new employees were hired to replace two of the complainants. But not long after they came to work in the Assembly they were "subjected . . . to similar, if not more, egregious mistreatment."

Next month, the Senate Armed Services Committee will consider a number of ways to reform the military's handling of assault and rape allegations. Our representatives in Albany have an obligation to do the same for cases of harassment and worse. We need a process in place to manage everything from complaints to victims' care, and we must ensure it isn't subject to corruption by built-in conflicts of interest.

Originally posted on Newsday.com