Former aide accuses NY state Sen. Klein of forced kiss

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A sexual harassment claim against an influential state senator who leads a breakaway Democratic faction has come as a potential power struggle looms in the legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo gird for battles on numerous topics, including sexual harassment.

Sen. Jeff Klein was accused earlier this week by Erica Vladimer of forcibly kissing her outside an Albany bar in the early spring of 2015. At the time she was working for the Independent Democratic Conference, which is led by the 57-year-old Klein.

Klein held a hastily arranged conference call late Wednesday afternoon just before Vladimer's accusations were first reported online in a story by the Huffington Post. During the call Klein told reporters that the sexually aggressive action he's accused of committing never happened.

Vladimer, 30, is standing by her account of the alleged incident. She told New York City's NY1 cable television news Thursday that she was inspired to come forward now after Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual misconduct dating back years.

"In my head it was more than just, he tried to kiss me," she said of the encounter with Klein. "It was, he tried to use his power over me ... because he thought he could, and he knew he could."

Also on Thursday, Klein sent a letter Thursday to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics asking the state panel to look into Vladimer's accusations. Klein said he would cooperate with an inquiry.

JCOPE's spokesman says the commission can't comment on whether an investigation has been started. Others, including some lawmakers and Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, have called for an independent investigation into the matter.

"I immediately called for an independent investigation, there's going to be an independent investigation and we should wait to see what that investigation says," Cuomo said Friday after an event on Long Island.

The controversy has the potential to impact the power-sharing arrangement in the Senate, which along with the Assembly is expected to take on sexual harassment during the 2018 session. Cuomo already has made the issue one of his priorities for this year.

Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, leads the IDC, an eight-member faction that broke off from other Senate Democrats in late 2011 to conference with Republicans, forging a majority coalition in the 63-seat chamber. His fellow IDC members have come out in support of Klein, including Sen. Diane Savino, his girlfriend.

Klein plays a key role with other Senate and Assembly leaders and Cuomo in state budget negotiations, which begin Tuesday when the governor releases his spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year that starts April 1.

Vladimer said Klein forcibly kissed her in 2015 while he stood outside an Albany bar for a smoke. Savino and IDC staffers were inside celebrating passage of the state budget. No one else has reported seeing anything unusual happen between the two, and Vladimer hasn't filed an official complaint with authorities. She left her IDC job a month later and is now working for the city of New York.

Progressive activist groups angered over the IDC's siding with Senate Republicans are calling on Klein to resign, a move that could weaken the breakaway faction's cohesion and improve the chances of mainline Democrats gaining the majority in the chamber. One of those groups, the Working Families Party, called on Senate lawmakers Friday, to remove Klein from his leadership roles until the investigation is finished.

Meanwhile, Alessandra Biaggi, a former aide in Cuomo's office, announced Thursday that she will enter the fall primary for Klein's seat, tweeting: "His #timesup. I'm running against him."

The allegations against Klein come at a time when government officials across the nation are being urged to focus on sexual harassment and how to combat it. Getting Albany on board hasn't been hard, but getting anything done about it is another matter, said Jennifer Wilson, a director for the League of Woman Voters for New York State.

"It's definitely been one of the hotter topics in Albany for the time being," she said. 'Whether or not that can be sustained remains to be seen."