A former staffer has come forward to accuse Democratic New York state Sen. Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her in 2015.
In an exclusive interview with HuffPost, 30-year-old Erica Vladimer said Klein “shoved his tongue” down her throat at a bar. A month after the incident, Vladimer says she left her job working for Klein.
“The fact that there was an environment that could make me doubt the self-confidence that I worked so hard to have ― that I got from the strong women in my life ― made me feel like it wasn’t the place for me,” Vladimer said of her decision to leave. “And that maybe the government wasn’t for me.”
Klein “unequivocally” denied the accusation in a statement to HuffPost provided by his lawyer.
Vladimer worked for the New York Senate from 2013 to 2015, first as a fellow, then as a policy analyst and counsel for the Independent Democratic Conference, reporting directly to Klein’s deputy chief of staff. Klein leads the IDC, and Vladimer said she worked with him on education budgets and volunteered for his 2014 campaign.
“It was very professional,” Vladimer said of her time working with Klein.
But that changed on April 1, 2015. The state budget had just passed in the early morning, so she and other colleagues working in the capital went to a local Albany bar, Justin’s, a few blocks away. Vladimer said she, like many of them, had been up for nearly 48 hours working nonstop as the budget loomed.
Vladimer said she got drinks with six to eight other IDC staff members. That included Klein and Democratic state Sen. Diane Savino, who is his longtime girlfriend.
In a conversation with both Klein and Savino, Vladimer mentioned that her father and Klein attended the same high school.
“He was really excited, he thought it was really cool,” Vladimer said. “He looked at Senator Savino and said, ‘Dianne, did you hear what Erica just said? Her dad went to Christopher Columbus High School.’”
Vladimer said she and Klein didn’t normally socialize. Chatting with Klein so casually at this bar was a rare moment, and a potentially significant networking opportunity for an aspiring government worker.
The two went outside to smoke a cigarette, and that’s when she says Klein forced himself on her. After briefly looking over her shoulder, Vladimer said Klein grabbed her head as she turned back around.
“All of a sudden there was a hand on the back of my head and he shoved his tongue down my throat,” she said. “In my head it lasted forever, I don’t think it lasted even three seconds.”
Vladimer said she could taste the cigarette the senator had been smoking.
“I pulled away and I said, ‘Senator, absolutely not,’” she said. “And he looked at me and said, with this stupid little grin on his face, ‘What? What?’ Like he was being coy, almost trying to flirt and play a game.”
Vladimer said she continued to rebuke the senator as he played dumb, his voice “a little higher pitched” as he continuously, innocently asked, “What? What? What did I do?”
Shaken and unsure how to react, Vladimer said she went back inside the bar, hoping to brush off the encounter. Fifteen minutes later, Vladimir said she was too overwhelmed to maintain her composure. She said she felt ashamed that her first thought wasn’t that Klein had done something inappropriate, but to worry that his girlfriend might have seen them.
“I will never forget the first thought in my head was, ‘Oh my god, did Savino see that? Because if she did, my life is over.’”
Savino told HuffPost that the incident described by Vladimer “never happened.”
“I’ve known Senator Klein personally and professionally for almost 16 years,” Savino said. “And I’m sure you know he and I have more than a professional relationship, so I know him better than anybody. This never happened.”
Savino added that she would have immediately taken action if she had seen or been told of the alleged assault that night.
On Wednesday afternoon, prior to the publication of this article, Klein and Savino also held a conference call with reporters to deny the allegations. (HuffPost was not invited to the call.)
Klein’s lawyer, Michael Zweig, admits Klein and Vladimer were at the bar together that night, and even that they went out to smoke a cigarette. But Klein never assaulted her, he said. And the lawyer said that a separate investigation he conducted found no staff members at the bar that night who witnessed such an incident.
By her own admission, Vladimer says no one saw the alleged assault.
In his letter, Zweig also said someone would have seen an assault, if it had happened, because of the large windows that look into the bar. Klein’s spokeswoman provided a photo of the inside of the bar to HuffPost.
“In view of all the foregoing, it simply defies credibility and reason to suggest that Sen. Klein would have, in full view of both his longtime girlfriend, numerous staff members, and in the middle of a very visible and public street, assault Ms. Vladimir [sic], as her allegation inaccurately suggest,” Zweig’s statement said.
Following her alleged assault, Vladimer bolted from the bar and made her way to a friend’s house at approximately four in the morning. There, she told her friend and her friend’s fiancé what she had experienced.
“She was hysterically crying, not able to breathe, couldn’t catch her breath,” Vladimer’s friend, who asked to remain anonymous because she still works in New York state politics, told HuffPost. “I’ve only seen her like that maybe one other time ever. It takes a lot to be sobbing hysterically, she’s not a big crier.”
Her friend stayed up with Vladimer for the next couple hours as she detailed her assault, both women said. She eventually fell asleep on her friend’s couch.
Vladimer said she never filed a formal complaint against Klein because she felt ashamed and blamed herself for the assault at the time.
She told HuffPost of other incidents of sexual harassment she faced while working for the Senate, including an incident in which a married man whom she looked up to as a mentor told her the two had “sexual tension” to sort out.
“What did I do to make these men think it was OK to treat me that way?” Vladimer said of her experience. “What I realized, and what took me a very long time ― too long ― to realize, is that there is nothing I could have done differently.”
Before going on the record with HuffPost, Vladimer sought advice from Democratic State Sen. Liz Krueger about whether or not to come forward. Krueger has been a proponent of protecting women in the workplace. Vladimer never identified Klein by name, and said Krueger never asked.
After later finding out the accused was Klein, Krueger declined to comment on the specific allegations, but talked about her impression of Vladimer when they first spoke.
“I find her to be a sincere and credible person who was clearly very shaken about what happened to her that she made the decision to leave state government in Albany because of it,” Krueger told HuffPost. “And that she comes forward not because she’s looking for a payday, nor does she think this is somehow helpful to her. She actually recognizes that the exposure could be extremely difficult for her, believes truly that she needs to speak out so that other women don’t fall victim to the same kinds of behavior that she had to go through.”
Vladimer said she wants to help protect other vulnerable women with political aspirations. That numerous powerful people at the height of their industries are being held accountable for sexual assault also encouraged her to come forward.
A number of sexual misconduct cases have left their mark on New York state politics. In 2003, Michael Boxley, an aide to Speaker Sheldon Silver, was arrested in a rape case (he later pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct). In 2009, former member of the State Senate Hiram Monserrate was convicted of domestic violence. Democratic New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez resigned in 2013 over allegations of sexual harassment made by former aides. And in November, Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin was sanctioned in the Assembly for sexual harassment after a 17-month investigation and can no longer have interns.
“I think it’s very important, when you look at things such as sex harassment and assault, it’s not about the sex, it’s about the power,” Vladimer said. “The abuse of power over people under you, people who don’t have the same amount of power as you. Power being used in a way they felt they had the right to.”
Vladimer said one day she’d like to run for office, but can’t do that if she is unable to stand up for herself and women like her.
“I hope to help the women who might have been in a similar situation and who left [politics] like I did, to realize that they’re not alone and they’re probably not done with all of the things they could get done in government,” she said. “We should come together and continue on our journey. I want to try to empower other women to use their voice, and their own personal stories, to help affect the change they want to see.”
Vladimer said she doesn’t necessarily want Klein to leave office, but for him to instead use this as an opportunity to do better.
“I think Senator Klein needs to step up,” she said. “As a leader of a very powerful conference in the New York state legislature, he has the ability to effectuate change. We have the Senate Dems who put out legislative packages on sexual harassment, and the governor saying he’s going to discuss proposals. What’s the IDC going to do? What’s the GOP going to do?”
Part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) recent sexual harassment proposal focuses on preventing the use of taxpayer money to fund sexual harassment settlements. And many state Senate Democrats have put out proposals of their own to combat the problem. Now it’s Klein’s turn to act, she said.
“Let’s let Klein step up,” she said. “And if he doesn’t step up, then he should definitely step down.”