Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Tuesday that legislators could choose to expel a fellow member accused of sexually harassing young female staffers, accusations that the embattled assemblyman said were politically motivated to destroy his “credibility and election options.”
Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez on Tuesday broke his silence about the allegations from four female staffers and said he won’t give in to demands to step down.
“Outside individuals and interest groups have asked me to resign,” Lopez said in a written statement, his first since he was censured Aug. 24 by the Assembly. “I believe the people should decide who should represent them. I will not capitulate to those self-serving tactics and demands.”
Lopez, who has denied the accusations, runs for re-election in November to the seat he’s held for 28 years. He was expected to coast to another term and faced no opponent in the Democratic primary.
The comments from Silver and Lopez come as a criminal investigation gets under way in New York City and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics met in a closed-door special session.
The commission refused to say after its two-hour meeting Tuesday whether it would investigate Lopez or Silver’s once-secret settlement of a separate set of sexual harassment charges against Lopez. Silver, a Democrat, approved a $103,000 settlement using public money for two of Lopez’s accusers in June.
Under JCOPE’s complex rules, at least one of the commissioners appointed by Silver or the one commissioner appointed by Democratic Senate leader John Sampson had to vote in favor of investigating. The provision in effect could be a veto power for legislative leaders’ appointees to block investigations of legislators of the same party.
Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters, said Tuesday that Lopez appears to have violated the state Public Officers Law over his conduct with the staffers and JCOPE must investigate.
“It’s a delicate personnel matter, but they should find out exactly what happened, why it happened, and issue their remedy,” Bartoletti said. “This is JCOPE’s first big challenge.”
Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the commission must issue a detailed report so any systemic problems can be corrected. JCOPE has been criticized in its first year of operation as being secretive, including choosing to follow only the spirit of the state Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law.
“We hope to see whatever JCOPE comes out with, they are detailed and transparent about what the findings are,” Mahoney said. “A sentence or two will not really illuminate things much.”
Common Cause, the National Organization for Women and Citizens Union have also formally requested that the commission investigate the case and any other instances of sexual harassment in Albany.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said from the Democratic National Convention that Lopez needs to be ousted.
“I’ve urged the speaker to see if there’s any legal way that the Assembly can remove him,” Schumer said. “He should be out of office. O-U-T! N-O-W!”
Meanwhile, state Republican Chairman Ed Cox said Silver needs to be removed as the powerful speaker.
“Faced with a member of his caucus who had on multiple occasions sexually harassed female staff members, Speaker Silver neglected to refer the matter to the Assembly Ethics Committee and instead took an active role in covering up the abuse,” Cox said. “Silver’s actions were unethical and wholly unbecoming of a member of the New York State Assembly, let alone its speaker.”
Silver said he welcomes the investigations. He said last week that he was wrong to enter into the secret settlement, even though he said the accusers requested it to help protect their privacy. He now says such deals conflict with the transparency needed in government.
Emails show lower-level attorneys with the attorney general’s office and the comptroller’s office were informed of the proposed settlement and worked on drafts, but they show no role in negotiations or in approving the final deal.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.