ALBANY (TNS) — Elizabeth Crothers was young and idealistic when she came to Albany to work at the New York State Capitol. She fled a few years later, disgusted and disillusioned.
Being a legislative aide, she told me on a recent day, was eye-opening from the start. For one thing, Crothers was warned about the men — there were many — that a young woman should do her best to avoid.
That's just how the Legislature was two decades ago. As the saying went, what happened north of Bear Mountain in the Hudson Highlands stayed there. Har, har. Snicker, snicker.
And that's the environment Crothers confronted when, she says, a top aide to former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver raped her in his Albany apartment
Crothers, then 24 years old, went to the police but didn't press charges against J. Michael Boxley, then 41, when detectives explained the difficulty of the road ahead. She instead pursued her claim in the Assembly.
Boxley denied the 2001 allegation, and Silver responded with a sham of an investigation that included phone calls to Crothers' parents and former employers. Meanwhile, Silver told Crothers his priority was to protect the institution.
Oh, but how that's bitterly hilarious with the benefit of hindsight. Nobody, after all, has done more to damage the Assembly than Silver, now sitting in prison for his all-consuming corruption. Protect the institution. Please.
But at the time, Silver had power that Crothers describes as creepy. It was like, she says, the Manhattan Democrat and his staffers were gods beyond reproach. They were people you did not cross.
You certainly didn't accuse one of them of rape. For doing so, Crothers paid an immediate price. In the halls of the Capitol, she became a ghost.
"I was invisible," she told me. "No hellos, no anything. All of a sudden, I just didn't exist."
Hearing that, it's hard not to think of the woman who recently accused Gov. Andrew Cuomo of groping her at the Executive Mansion. The unnamed staffer continues to go to work, we're told.
How is she being treated? Is she also a ghost? Think of the courage, the strength, needed to walk into that building every morning.
How many of us could do it?
Back in 2001 Crothers quickly figured out protecting the institution was Silver's way of safeguarding his own power. He quickly announced his faith in Boxley, calling him "a man of integrity."
Nevertheless, Crothers suspects Silver believed her.
"If he didn't then," she added, "he did two years later."
That's when Boxley was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs and charged with raping another legislative staffer who said she remembered feeling disoriented in a bar and woke up to find the attorney having sex with her.
"On that evening, I had sexual intercourse and there was not consent," Boxley would later admit as he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, misdemeanor sexual misconduct. He received six years' probation and a $1,000 fine. (Boxley couldn't be reached for comment.)
Crothers had fled Albany by the time of his arrest. She could take life as a pariah for only so long before she needed to escape. She left with wounds that never quite healed.
She told me, with some hesitation, that based on her experience she wouldn't advise anyone to do what she did. In other words, she'd recommend that a young victim keep quiet. The personal consequences are just too great, too damaging. They never go away.
Crothers gave up on a government career and went into teaching instead. Disgusted by Silver's self-aggrandizing reign, she wanted no part of the sycophancy she had seen, the craven acquiescence to power.
"People would sell their highest-held values for a parking spot, or some paper clips or even just a pat on the back," she said. "People would rather be invited to a party or get Christmas cards than say hello to me in an elevator."
To the extent Crothers remains involved in government, it is for victims. So as the current legislative session in New York nears its end, she and other advocates are pushing for new laws.
One is the Adult Survivors Act, a sequel to the much-celebrated Child Victims Act that would open a window for sexual-abuse claimants to file lawsuits. It would allow Crothers to sue the Assembly, for example, despite the statute of limitations.
Another bill would clarify that employees in the Legislature and governor's office enjoy full sexual harassment protections. A third would prevent the retaliatory release of personnel files after allegations are lodged, as Cuomo's team did to former staffer Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to publicly accuse Cuomo of sexual harassment.
Those bills, and others, have passed in the state Senate but seem stalled in the Assembly. Why is that?
"Habit," said Crothers.
Well, yes. There's that. But many suspect another factor: The sexual harassment allegations against the governor from at least eight women. As one lawmaker acknowledged, the timing is "super awkward."
Crothers sees a repeat of Silver's protect the institution baloney. Times have changed, in certain respects, but powerful politicians haven't. Everything is still all about them. That's among the lessons Crothers learned in Albany.
When she looks at photos taken before her time here, she thinks she had a better smile. She was happier, more optimistic, more trusting. She knew less, then, and that was good.
(Chris Churchill is a columnist for the Times Union of Albany.)