The two faces of Eric Schneiderman

One part of Monday’s bombshell New Yorker article that led to the resignation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman involved choking.

“He was cutting off my ability to breathe,” Tanya Selvaratnam, one of Schneiderman’s alleged victims, told The New Yorker magazine. Eventually, “we could rarely have sex without him beating me,” she said.

“The choking was very hard,” said Manning Barish, another on-the-record victim, describing a night not long after she became involved with Schneiderman. “It was really bad. I kicked. In every fibre, I felt I was being beaten by a man.”

Here’s a separate description of choking: “My ex-husband strangled me into unconsciousness. The police were called by my neighbor who had heard me screaming.”

That one comes from Orchid Ghebryal, who stood alongside Schneiderman in March 2010, supporting the then-state-senator and the legislation he had introduced. It was the Strangulation Prevention Act.

It’s surreal to look back on that legislation now, given Schneiderman’s alleged behavior with the two women interviewed on the record by the New Yorker. (In a statement, the attorney general said he has “engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity” but denied nonconsensual sex.)

Jekyll and Hyde

Many liberal New Yorkers might be forgiven for putting Schneiderman in one box, characterizing him as an avenger fighting for their interests, against all those arrayed in their way. Fighting for good things like gun control and the rule of law, against alleged bad actors like Exxon on the environment, and the people who abuse their partners with psychological games or fingers encircling necks.

That lauded strangulation legislation, for example, came in the wake of disgraced then-State Sen. Hiram Monserrate’s 2009 conviction for assaulting his girlfriend. And just before Schneiderman held his anti-strangulation news conference with domestic violence victims’ advocates, news broke about an Albany aide’s assault of a girlfriend, which included choking. Schneiderman was a politico on the right side: see the New York Times op-ed from leaders of the Sanctuary for Families’ Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services and the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Schneiderman’s legislation, praised in the op-ed, would close what advocates called a loophole that allowed choking of various kinds to happen without resulting in serious penalties like felonies or even misdemeanors.

So Schneiderman moved the anti-choking bill forward, noting in a statement the grave danger of strangulation in domestic violence incidents. If an attacker applies 11 pounds of pressure for 10 seconds, victims can fall unconscious. This should be a serious crime. His bill would make it so. “It sends a strong message that we must do everything in our power to ensure that no one is immune from accountability for committing such a heinous crime,” his statement said.

Later that day Schneiderman chaired a Codes Committee meeting, and the strangulation bill was on the agenda. Such meetings tend to move briskly — this one was over in half an hour — and there was little discussion of the strangulation bill by Schneiderman or anyone else. A recording available on the State Senate website shows Schneiderman briskly running through agenda items, dressed in a neat suit and tie, sipping coffee and often smiling: strange to see his choking legislation go through the normal processes of government now that we know the accusations he would later face. But mostly he and his colleagues banter lightly about other issues, like legislation regarding the use of live fish in pedicures.

In June, the strangling legislation passes, and in August then-Gov. David Paterson signs it into law.

When two people in Monroe County faced charges under the new law months later, Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Green described the profile of some of the people upon whom the law would be used, according to the Daily Record of Rochester: “It’s conduct that’s been associated with situations where you have someone trying to dominate or control someone.”

Perhaps that was the case for Schneiderman. Perhaps he believed himself synonymous with “the law” he wielded on behalf of New Yorkers from Staten Island to the Canadian border, and acted with impunity. But he was never above that law. And now it’s possible even his own laws could apply to him.