ALBANY, N.Y. — Two recent firings of high-ranking New York state officials over sexual harassment in the workplace share what critics say are disturbing similarities: In both cases, the behavior was alleged to have gone on for years, and some who tried to sound the alarm say they were targeted for retaliation.
Political opponents of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo have pointed to the cases of Brian Gestring, the state's top forensic sciences executive, and James "Jay" Kiyonaga, the No. 2 official in the agency overseeing people with disabilities, as examples of the administration's failings when it comes to curbing sexual harassment.
Democratic gubernatorial primary opponent Cynthia Nixon and GOP candidate Marc Molinaro both suggested Cuomo's administration didn't respond quickly enough, with Nixon saying "there appears to be a clear pattern of the governor ignoring reports of sexual harassment against his top staff and allies."
But Cuomo's office refutes those claims, saying it turned Gestring's case over to a state public ethics commission for further review and was instrumental in launching the Kiyonaga investigation by alerting the state inspector general's office about allegations made against him.
"We take every allegation of workplace bullying and harassment seriously," said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, who has been governor since 2011.
Yet the governor's office, in Gestring's case, didn't request the public ethics commission review until March 18, the day the Albany Times Union reported about his alleged mistreatment of employees.
In Kiyonaga's case, the governor's office got involved only last October, when an alleged victim, then a high-ranking agency official, went directly to Cuomo's top aide with her allegations.
A report by state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott last year noted that Gestring was accused of sexually harassing subordinates and other inappropriate workplace behavior as far back as 2012, not long after he started working in the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Some women subordinates say he routinely made sexually inappropriate comments while in the office, such as telling his staff they needed to "hump more" and repeatedly used the phrase "splitting a pubic hair."
That led to a written warning from his boss, the report said, that any more such behavior could lead to disciplinary action or firing.
But co-workers told the inspector general that Gestring's behavior only got worse in the ensuing years. The report noted that department officials neglected to adequately respond to allegations that Gestring created a work environment "rife with incidents of sexual harassment, ageism, racism, and threats of retaliation and physical violence."
Gestring wasn't fired from his nearly $138,000-a-year job until this past March, when state officials said he was let go because of an inappropriate comment he made at a work meeting held outside the department's offices.
Gestring's attorney, Stephen Rehfuss, said his client denies all the allegations made against him.
The firing came just four days after the Albany Times Union reported that two longtime Department of Criminal Justice Services employees who cooperated with the inspector general's investigation into Gestring had been demoted by higher-ups in the department. Kim Schiavone was moved to a different office, while Gina Bianchi went from special counsel to the department's commissioner to staff attorney, taking a nearly $44,000 pay cut in the process.
Last month, Bianchi filed a federal lawsuit against top officials in the department, claiming the retaliation came after audio tapes of her interview with investigators were given to a manager without her knowledge.
"That should send chills down every state employee's spine," she told The Associated Press.
In Kiyonaga's case, he was fired May 30 from his $180,000-a-year job as the No. 2 official at the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities after an inspector general's report revealed "reprehensible" harassment and "sexually inappropriate acts" by Kiyonaga going back several years.
Prior to working at OPDD, Kiyonaga was head of the state Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs. An inspector general's investigation into Kiyonaga's behavior there uncovered multiple instances of him talking to women staffers about sexual matters during office hours and at after-work social gatherings. A report noted that he spoke several times about dreams "of a sexual nature involving staff members" and on one occasion asked a female staffer if she knew the definition of a slang term for an unusual sexual act.
The Justice Center's former special prosecutor, Patricia Gunning, has told media outlets that after she complained about Kiyonaga's behavior, he retaliated against her by cutting her staff without explanation and keeping her out of meetings. Gunning resigned last August and last week filed a federal harassment complaint against the Justice Center and Kiyonaga.
Voicemail messages left on a phone listed in Kiyonaga's name haven't been returned.