Experts Assail Call as Claimed Between Paterson and Aide’s AccuserLeah Hill in The New York Times, February 25, 2010
By JAMES BARRON
In the world of lawyers and advocates who specialize in domestic violence and family law, a moment-to-moment concern is that a woman who has made an accusation — or gone to court for protection — will be intimidated by even the slightest pushback, whether it comes from the man she has taken action against or from his family, his friends or his co-workers.
For that reason, these experts say, contact between a powerful official like Gov. David A. Paterson and a woman who had testified that she had been violently assaulted by one of his top aides was inappropriate.
“If the governor called this woman for the first time and there was no other legitimate purpose than to talk about this incident, that should raise eyebrows,” said Leah A. Hill, a clinical associate professor of law at Fordham University Law School and co-director of Fordham’s Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child Advocacy.
“This is already a very complex issue,” she said. “There’s no place for communication from a high official in the decision-making in the victim of domestic violence. The call should raise eyebrows.”
The New York Times reported Wednesday night that the governor had called the woman, who had gone to court seeking a protective order against David W. Johnson, a longtime aide to Mr. Paterson. The woman’s lawyer, Lawrence B. Saftler, said the minute-long conversation took place shortly before she was to return to court in the Bronx for a hearing on the final protective order. But the judge dismissed the case when she did not attend the hearing, on Feb. 8.
Mr. Paterson said on Wednesday night that he was suspending Mr. Johnson without pay. The governor also said that he was asking Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo to investigate how the administration had handled the matter.
The governor said the woman had initiated the call, although Mr. Saftler denied that was the case. But in the world of domestic abuse cases, experts said it was irrelevant who made the call — any contact between her and the governor was inappropriate.
“The whole thing seems a little odd to me, for a governor to call on a domestic case,” said Jo Anne Sanders, the executive director of the Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It’s he-said, she-said as far as the calls go. However, if in fact she’s been dissuaded on pressing charges, that would not be appropriate.”
Karen Blaustein, a lawyer in Manhattan who specializes in family law, characterized Mr. Paterson’s call as “intimidation of a witness.” Ms. Blaustein is not involved in the case and said her comments were based on what she had read.
“I think that the attack that she described with David Johnson was brutal and violent,” Ms. Blaustein said. “If we are a civilized society, we have to have zero tolerance for any kind of attack like that, and to then use power, political power, to intimidate a witness to the degree that she then doesn’t appear in court and her petition is dismissed, is unspeakable. It’s an outrage. It’s setting us back 200 years.”
“The fact that it’s the governor of a very powerful state, it’s control to a degree that is going to have the effect of frightening her or other women in her position to be silent,” Ms. Blaustein said. “She probably felt terrorized and powerless.”
Ms. Blaustein said the substance of the conversation was irrelevant; the call itself was the issue. “It doesn’t matter what he said to her — he could have said, ‘Hello, you’re a nice lady,’ ” Ms. Blaustein said, “but he was calling on Johnson’s behalf and he wanted this to be over and hush-hush. It doesn’t matter what he said. The call itself was threatening and intimidating.”
Michele McKeon, the chief executive officer of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she was “deeply disappointed and disturbed by the allegations” about Mr. Paterson.
“We ask the leaders of the state to lead by example and adhere by the policies they set,” she said, adding that one of those policies was an executive order requiring state agencies to issue rules for domestic violence in the workplace. “Nowhere do we find that your boss should be calling the alleged victim of the attack,” she said. (That executive order was signed by Mr. Paterson’s predecessor, Eliot Spitzer.)
Rita Smith, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that Mr. Paterson gave a speech at an event her group had organized in Manhattan in 2007, when he was lieutenant governor. “It was a great speech, and I believed him,” she said, “and it makes me sad to think that commitment doesn’t extend to everyone in his circle of influence.”
The woman in the Johnson case also complained in court in the Bronx that the State Police had been “harassing” her to drop the case. “I can’t imagine a scenario where that would be appropriate,” Professor Hill said. “That’s not the role of the police.” She said such calls could have “a chilling effect on her going forward with any kind of complaint she had filed, whether it be a criminal complaint or a family court complaint.”
The State Police superintendent, Harry J. Corbitt, said on Wednesday that the State Police had “never pressured” the woman not to press charges against Mr. Johnson. He also said the State Police routinely made such contacts when an incident concerned a high-profile person, even one who is not a government official, “that might involve a media event.”