City Hall’s #MeToo awakening failed to rise to its promises — with a key reform intended to prevent known harassers on the municipal workforce from jumping from job to job still unfulfilled, THE CITY has learned.
Meanwhile, agency investigations of sexual harassment can take years, city records show — leaving accused harassers in government jobs as probes drag. One case has been under review since April 2015.
The reform pledge came in March 2019, after The New York Times revealed that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief of staff had landed a job at a political consulting firm with close ties to the mayor — without disclosure of the aide’s alleged misconduct at City Hall involving two women.
Further digging revealed that the Department of Parks and Recreation had reached settlements with three workers that agreed not to inform future employers about sexual harassment they had committed — instead providing a “neutral reference” in exchange for their resignation.
A City Hall spokesperson said at the time that the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) would begin keeping track of how many such agreements are reached across all city agencies to get a handle on the prevalence of the practice.
But a spokesperson for the department told THE CITY in October that the agency hasn’t been keeping tabs on those “stipulations of settlement.”
Records obtained by THE CITY show the settlements involving neutral references have continued.
No Mark on Record
In late 2019, city Human Resources Administration case worker Michael Yeboah was found to have violated 14 agency codes of conduct and two provisions of the City Charter — including a prohibition on sexual harassment and rules governing staff relationships with program participants.
The documents provided in that case were so heavily redacted by the agency that the exact nature of the sexual harassment isn’t clear.
But the records show Yeboah was able to secure a neutral employment reference from the city — in his case, if he agreed to resign by Jan. 15, 2020.
Records available online show his retirement went into effect on Jan. 31, 2020.
Multiple attempts to reach Yeboah by phone and through his former union were unsuccessful.
Lawrence Pearson, a partner at the employment litigation firm Wigdor LLP, said such settlements are also common in the private sector.
“I do think that’s problematic — that someone who was separated gets to essentially wipe the record clean,” he said.
City Hall officials said the practice of granting a neutral employment reference is rare, and is typically done to protect the identity of the complainant.
A spokesperson told THE CITY that DCAS will keep track of such agreements moving forward — the same, still unfulfilled commitment the de Blasio administration made in March 2019.
‘We Are So Far Behind’
Neutral references are just one way that city government enables workers to hop to new jobs without past harassment being a hindrance.
As THE CITY revealed Tuesday, confirmed harassers were able to resign in lieu of termination from one agency — and then get hired by a separate agency within a short period of time.
Departments awarded raises and promotions to some workers accused of harassment in the middle of investigations that were later substantiated, or even after the allegations had been confirmed, the records show.
One city worker quit before he could be disciplined — and went on to run for local office. And an EMT supervisor accused of groping a former “Jersey Shore” star was demoted — but within a year made up his lost wages with overtime.
In response to those findings, the former chair of the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission — which audits agency’s systems for preventing and dealing with sexual harassment, discrimination and other injustices — tweeted that there was no “structure” in city government to ensure action.
As former Chair of the City’s Equal Employment Practices Commission, I can say with confidence that there’s no process structure within City govt to prevent this from happening. Separate divisions across @NYCDCAS, @NYCComptroller and the EEPC itself 1/3 https://t.co/XgucBDku5s— Sasha Neha Ahuja (@ahujie) November 10, 2021
“There’s no centralized structure for prevention and accountability. This leaves individual agencies to address not only sexual/gender based harassment, but abuse of all kinds, as individual cases,” tweeted Sasha Neha Ahuja, the former chair.
“Folks who cause harm can therefore carry on as City employees with minimal accountability,” she added. “NYC govt should be the model employer, but we are so far behind.”
A Case in City Hall
The saga of de Blasio’s former chief of staff, Kevin O’Brien, highlighted dangerous holes in employment screening and references at the very top of city government.
O’Brien agreed to resign, The Times reported, instead of being terminated, as recommended by the Mayor’s Office EEO investigators.
O’Brien didn’t respond to an email from THE CITY seeking comment.
He had been fired after committing sexual harassment at the job he held before arriving at City Hall, The Times reported — putting City Hall in the position of unwittingly helping perpetuate a cycle of misconduct.
De Blasio faulted O’Brien’s prior employer, the Democratic Governors Association, for not informing the city of past transgressions during a background check.
The mayor also blamed Hilltop Public Solutions, the consulting firm that hired O’Brien after he left City Hall, for not conducting a background check of its own.
“We would have said he resigned in lieu of termination,” the mayor said at the time. “Any employer in the world can make sense of that.”
Mayor Signed 11 Bills
O’Brien’s stint in New York City government coincided with City Council efforts to shine light onto how city agencies handle harassment cases — while de Blasio struggled to provide an accounting.
Manhattan City Council members Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal stood on the steps of City Hall in December 2017 to announce a package of legislation intended to prevent and root out workplace sexual harassment cases.
The bills came amid the then-recently revealed allegations of rampant sexual abuse and harassment by movie producer Harvey Weinstein, galvanizing the #MeToo movement.
A month later, reporters asked de Blasio about the prevalence of complaints during his administration. It turned out the city hadn’t been gathering or analyzing numbers.
It took until April 2018 for the city to release its first snapshot. It revealed 1,312 complaints by city employees against other municipal workers between mid 2013 and late 2017, of which 221 — or 17% — were substantiated via investigation.
But the data provided almost no information on outcomes of disciplinary proceedings, and city officials declined to provide details.
On May 9, 2018, de Blasio signed the 11 bills referred to as the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act. They include a requirement for annual anti-sexual harassment training for all employees at city agencies as well as at private firms with 15 or more employees.
One measure orders the city to annually publish data on the number of incidents of workplace sexual harassment at each agency, as well as the outcomes of investigations.
‘Shouldn’t Need a Law’
“I would love to see government really look at this information in a public way and be accountable for the findings. They shouldn’t need a law for that,” Rosenthal told THE CITY.
“And by being accountable you’re saying, ‘Not acceptable. Here’s what we’re going to change.’”
But the stats do not show how long cases take to get resolved — information THE CITY obtained by filing a public records request with a dozen agencies.
New York City government sets a guideline of 90 days for agencies to complete investigations of sexual harassment by municipal workers.
Yet agencies face no consequences for violating the 90-day guideline: A City Hall spokesperson said the agencies must simply provide an explanation.
The Administration for Children’s Services had a half dozen cases that had dragged on for more than five years as of late October — including the one that was approaching the seven-year mark. Five of the six cases have since been administratively closed, according to an ACS spokesperson, while the sixth dating to April 2015 is still under review.
Backlog of 1,200-Plus Cases
Records obtained by THE CITY show ACS, along with the Department of Education and Department of Correction, have routinely surpassed the 90-day mark, often by months or years.
Some 17 complaints filed by ACS employees between 2014 and 2018 were still pending as of late last month.
A spokesperson for ACS didn’t directly explain why the November 2014 case had been open for nearly seven years, saying instead that the agency’s EEO office has brought on new investigators and new leadership.
At one point in 2017, the Department of Correction had a backlog of more than 1,200 open cases — which included allegations of harassment by staff filed by detainees at city jails.
The agency recently contended in mandatory reports filed online that it had cleared the backlog, in part by boosting the number of investigators from nine to 26.
From 2016 to 2020, the period during which the backlog of cases was cleared, the department substantiated seven allegations out of 423 complaints against staff, according to updated statistics provided by the agency. That’s a substantiation rate of under 2%.
‘No Clear Line’ on Time
Meanwhile, the DOE has taken up to five years to substantiate instances of sexual harassment, such as the case of a teacher at PS 135 in Queens who allegedly sent a sexually explicit photo to a parent.
A complaint was filed on Feb. 13, 2014, but it wasn’t substantiated until April 19, 2019.
Katie O’Hanlon, a DOE spokesperson, blamed the delay in closing the report on a transition in Office of Equal Opportunity leadership and on the reporting structure. She said the agency has since streamlined case-finalization procedures.
An additional eight cases at the DOE filed in 2014 or 2015 took more than four years to resolve, records show.
“There’s no clear line in the sand on when they’re supposed to wrap things up. That’s one of the reasons they drag things out — because they can,” said Wendy Murphy, an attorney and adjunct professor of sexual violence at New England Law in Boston.
“One reform that might help is literally to put a time limit on how long an investigation can take place, and then have some kind of a remedy if it doesn’t happen as quickly as it’s supposed to,” she added.