New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had been a vocal proponent of the “Me too” movement and had been investigating the activities of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, resigned on Monday, hours after he was accused of physically assaulting four women.
Two of the women who spoke on the record said Schneiderman hit them without their consent and that they had had to seek medical treatment for being slapped and choked. One woman, who was born in Sri Lanka, said Schneiderman called her his “brown slave,” choked her, beat her, and spat at her.
In response to the allegations, Schneiderman said that “[i]n the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.” Schneiderman’s resignation statement, given several hours after the story broke, said: “While these allegations are unrelated to my professional conduct or the operations of the office, they will effectively prevent me from leading the office’s work at this critical time.” New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who had called for Schneiderman’s resignation, stated: “Given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve.” Schneiderman is now being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Schneiderman’s resignation statement raises an increasingly common question about where to draw the line between public and private when you are talking about public officials. He claims that the allegations are “unrelated” to his “professional conduct” or the operations of the New York Attorney General’s office — but if the allegations of the four women are determined by investigators to be true and Schneiderman is prosecuted for the physical assaults, that’s obviously not accurate. As a baseline, the “professional conduct” of an Attorney General should include not engaging in criminal activity.
But what if Schneiderman’s depiction of the circumstances are credited, and his violent interaction with the women was part of “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity”? If, hypothetically, two consenting adults choose to engage in such conduct, and one of them is a high-ranking public official, does the public have a right to know about it? It’s an exercise in line-drawing, and part of the evaluation has to consider whether public officials have a right to enjoy some kind of privacy in their personal lives — and, more broadly, whether imposing a rule that says every aspect of an individual’s personal and family life is fair game will discourage people from seeking office in the first place.
These are tough questions, but in my view there are some lines that can be drawn. If a public official is engaging in conduct that indicates that they have an interest in acting out violent and demeaning fantasies, I want to know about it and factor it into my decision-making on whether they should be serving the public trust.