As It Happens

Women's advocate calls out 'hypocrisy' of former N.Y. AG Eric Schneiderman

On Monday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned after four women came forward accusing him of abuse. As attorney general, Schneiderman was a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement and has denied the accusations.

Sonia Ossorio worked on legislation with Schneiderman to protect women from the abuse he is now accused of

Former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks during a news conference in New York. Schneiderman resigned from his position on Monday amid allegations of sexual assault. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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On Monday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman abruptly resigned after four women told the New Yorker that he had assaulted them.

Schneiderman was heralded as a progressive champion — a powerful man willing to stand up for women.

As Attorney General of New York, Schneiderman introduced legislation to protect women who are victims of domestic abuse and he went after Harvey Weinstein for sexual harassment and coercion.

The allegations against Schneiderman are disturbing — including choking, slapping and spitting on women he dated.

Schneiderman denies the abuse, saying, "In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross."

Sonia Ossorio is the president of The National Organization for Women New York, endorsed Schneiderman for attorney general and worked with him on legislation in the past.

She spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the allegations.

Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Ossorio, what did you think when you first heard the allegations against Eric Schneiderman?

It was hard to believe when I first laid my eyes on the story. In a flurry, I started receiving texts as the story was published.

And then, unfortunately, started reading the story and was shocked, absolutely shocked, like so many of my colleagues were, who have worked with him, to see the other side of Mr. Schneiderman that we certainly had never seen. 

Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman leaves his apartment building on Wednesday. On Monday, hours after accounts of abuse by four women, Schneiderman resigned. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

What struck you most about the allegations in the article in The New Yorker?

They went so far beyond a lot of what we have been hearing about. You know, men needing to be held accountable. This was physical, psychological and emotional abuse. It was violent.

I mean choking is very, very serious — it's actually a very serious crime, in New York. And it's a piece of legislation that our office worked with his office to make happen.

In 2010, when Eric Schneiderman was in the state legislature, he introduced the bill that would make intentional strangulation a violent felony. You supported the legislation.

You were quoted in his press release as saying, "Fewer forms of abuse are more terrifying or dangerous than being strangled. This bill will end the free pass that abusers have been getting for this vicious, terrorizing act of brutality. We want to thank Mr. Schneiderman for his outstanding leadership on this issue."

Of course, with choking being one of the things he is accused of doing, what goes through your mind?

Well, you know, the hypocrisy. The realization that you never really know anybody and what they are capable of in their private life if you're not there.

And how, the truth is, there is no profile of what a domestic batterer looks like. They cross every kind of barrier you can think of from educational to socioeconomic.

So I think that maybe somebody who is polished, and highly educated, and has a high profile career, probably takes more care, and is better at masking those indications of who they are in their private life, than maybe other people.

Did you feel personally betrayed by what happened?

I felt betrayed for the entire community, for everybody in New York actually, because that is a really, really important position.

It is the top law enforcement in the state and it's a real step backwards to find out that the person who was leading it is someone who himself is a batterer.

It's really disheartening and I know has rattled many, many people — particularly women who work in the human rights and women's rights community who had seen him as a champion for women.

We have one less champion now and we need more. We need more male allies and that might be one of the reasons why people do feel betrayed. It's like there aren't enough of them and then the few that we have — this is how it turns out.

I do want to point out that Mr. Schneiderman denies these allegations. He insists that some of the behaviour was actually consensual. Sometimes when you're talking about public figures there are rumours that circulate. Had you heard anything?

No. No, not at all. I do think that the next phase of the #MeToo movement is really going to zero in on those of us who are complicit in allowing this type of behaviour to perpetuate because there is always somebody who knows.

This idea of the consensual or the role-playing, I mean, reading the story, it's clear the hitting and the slapping took place during an argument when people were fully clothed. One of the women wasn't even in a romantic relationship with him. So that doesn't really hold water.

Sonia Ossorio is the president of the National Organization for Women of New York. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Why do you think that they didn't come forward earlier?

This is a question that is always on the table because, in general, women feel that they won't be believed. In general, coming forward upends your life in many ways. And, in this case, when you're talking about the top law enforcement officer in the state, they were scared of the power that he had.

Written by Imogen Birchard and John McGill. Interview produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.