Groping for Cover

Top Male Aide Slams Brooklyn’s Gentile for Sexual Coercion

One day after it was first reported publicly that a male aide to Brooklyn City Councilman Vincent Gentile has filed a complaint alleging sexual harassment in the workplace, a prominent gay civil rights attorney has come forward to say that he and Gentile engaged in a consensual sexual relationship in 1994.

The assertion by Thomas Shanahan, who has a Manhattan law practice in which he has litigated numerous gay and transgender discrimination cases, contradicts statements made by Gentile on Tuesday, to Gay City News and numerous other media outlets, that he is not gay and has not engaged in sexual conduct with other men.

“I am not gay,” Gentile said in a telephone interview on Tuesday evening, during which he emphatically denied that he engaged in any harassment or behavior that could be construed as such. Asked if he had ever had sex with another man, Gentile responded, “No. It is not a lifestyle I seek or desire or live, even as much as I support gay issues.”

Gentile’s uneven support for gay rights, however, is what Shanahan said motivated him to come forward. Shanahan explained that the affair took place while he managed Gentile’s first and unsuccessful state Senate race, in 1994, and that the two men remained friends for years afterward.

“I helped him build bridges and raise money in the gay community,” Shanahan said. “He assured me he would vote for [the New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act] in 2002.”

In fact, Gentile, facing the gay rights vote in December 2002, a month after losing his bid for Senate re-election and one month before entering a special City Council race in Bay Ridge, voted no, despite a long-standing promise to the Empire State Pride Agenda and other gay political groups that he would support the measure. He was one of only three Democrats in the state Senate who opposed the measure’s successful adoption.

“He turned his back on the community,” Shanahan said. “This is a matter of principle.”

Gentile has long been dogged by rumors about his sexuality, a point he readily acknowledged in the phone interview, but the issue broke wide open on Tuesday evening when WCBS reporter Andrew Kirtzman first reported the sexual harassment complaint. In response to questions from Kirtzman, the office of City Council Speaker Gifford Miller issued a statement acknowledging that a complaint had been filed but declining to name either party.

On Wednesday, Steve Sigmund, a Council spokesperson, reiterated that Council policy forbids the release of the names of either the complainant or the target of the complaint. However, in the wake of widespread grumbling that Miller did not move aggressively enough when several women recently filed complaints against Queens Councilman Allan W. Jennings, Jr., a matter still under investigation, Sigmund took pains to emphasize, “Given the Council’s strong anti-harassment policy, we will investigate quickly and take this matter very seriously.”

Sigmund explained that the complaint would first be reviewed by a committee composed of senior Council staff, including the general counsel, and then be referred to the Standards and Ethics Committee, made up of councilmembers and chaired by Jackson Heights Democrat Helen Sears.

The initial reporting about the complaint did not identify the Gentile staffer, but said that he had given two weeks notice on September 14, the day of the primary election. During the Tuesday telephone interview, Gentile, while denying any charges of harassment, said he had not yet been notified of any complaint but identified the staffer who resigned as John Martin, who he said had worked for him for a little more than a year. The councilman said Martin was still working in his office through his end date of September 28.

The Daily News, in its Wednesday edition, identified the accuser as a 26-year-old former teacher, and the Post, which ran his picture, said he served as Gentile’s chief of staff.

Gay City News was unable to locate Martin.

Published reports indicated that Martin has alleged that Gentile made numerous sexual overtures to him, that included suggestions that he move into the councilman’s house, that the two share a hotel room on an out-of-town trip, and that they spend vacation time together in Maine. None of the reports has involved charges that Gentile made any physical advances on the accuser, though the Post reported that the man was uncomfortable sharing a car with the councilman.

“The charge of any kind of harassment is simply not true,” Gentile told Gay City News on Tuesday night. Asked whether he had any personal relationship with Martin, the councilman said that the two and other staffers would occasionally have lunch together near his office and that a group of staff members, including Martin, joined him on a trip to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.

Asked about specific charges alleged to be in the complaint, Gentile replied, “I am not going to get into rumor and innuendo.”

Gentile could not be reached late Wednesday to respond to Shanahan’s assertions.

Asked on Tuesday why he thought rumors have persisted over the years that he is gay, the councilman responded, “They have certainly been bandied about. Frankly, the suggestion has been made if you are in your 40s and single in the City of New York, you must be gay. Maybe it is because I have supported gay issues.”

Reminded that he had backed down on his pledge to support SONDA in the state Senate, Gentile responded that he had voted for two recent gay-related measures in the Council—the Equal Benefits Bill, which will require city contractors to offer domestic partnership benefits, and the Dignity for All Schools Act, which provides anti-harassment protections for students including gay and transgendered youth. Gentile noted that on each bill, he supported the successful efforts to override vetoes by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Philip Reed, a gay Democratic councilman from East Harlem who sits on the Standards and Ethics Committee, would not comment on reports that a complaint had been filed, but offered a rebuttal to Gentile’s claim that he is now seen as a gay rights supporter.

“I would not, as an openly gay councilmember, mention Councilmember Gentile as a champion of our rights,” Reed said. “I don’t think when faced with the question of standing up for anti-discrimination in the state Senate, you even have to like gay people. You just have to be willing to say they should not be harassed and beat up. Not being willing to do so because you are facing election in a conservative district in Brooklyn—it’s difficult to classify that as support for gay rights. So in the Council he has voted with the majority. Hell, some of the Republicans have too. That’s not a profile in courage.”

Bill Perkins, another Manhattan Democratic councilman on the Standards and Ethics Committee, also declined comment about the question of whether a complaint had surfaced against Gentile, but when asked to characterize his Brooklyn colleague’s posture on gay rights, said, “I normally would love to [comment], but not in the context of what is going to come before me. That would not be fair to the process or the people involved.”

Alan Fleishman, a Park Slope Democratic district leader who has long been affiliated with the Lambda Independent Democrats, the Brooklyn gay political club that was harshly critical of Gentile when he broke his promise on SONDA, offered a far more conciliatory view of Gentile than did Reed.

“I feel for him. I really do,” Fleishman said. “A lot of folks in the media are trying to get gay activists to knock him today over the SONDA vote. I think he did a pretty good job of redeeming himself on the Equal Benefits Bill. He did it without a lot of fanfare and without looking for credit.”

Fleishman said that Gentile chose to vote against SONDA in order to win Orthodox Jewish support in his impending Council race.

“His victory [in the race] bears him out on the politics,” Fleishman said. “Because he got a good vote in the Orthodox community, and he would not have if he had voted for SONDA.. And would not have come in first without the Orthodox support.”

“For someone who has represented a fairly conservative district, Gentile has tried to be as progressive as possible on issues like choice,” Fleishman added.

Told of Reed’s critique of Gentile, Fleishman responded, “That’s fine, but I don’t live in Manhattan.”

Carlo Scissura, an attorney who once worked for Gentile but ran unsuccessfully against him in the 2003 Council race, said, “I never saw any inappropriate behavior. I am surprised by the charges and the people I have spoken to who know Vincent were surprised that this would come out.”

Scissura acknowledged that the gay issue was always in the air about Gentile.

“The suggestion that he’s gay does not surprise me,” he said. “I have no independent knowledge of that though. The rumors have been out there for years.”

Scissura faulted Gentile for not being more independent and progressive, in the spirit of former Bay Ridge Councilman Sal Albanese, but said he thinks his former foe has the political strength to weather the storm.

“I think he survives this,” Scissura said. “Let me put it this way. If more allegations surface from other staffers, then he’s in trouble. If there are none, then I think he is fine.”

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