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Women sue Assembly speaker over harassment scandal

June 6, 2013
Updated 6:55 p.m.
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— Two women who accused an assemblyman of sexual harassment are suing him and powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for his role in a secret settlement of previous claims.

The women, who also filed a claim against the Assembly, say they were hired by Assemblyman Vito Lopez last year and were subjected to sexual harassment by him. Just weeks before, Silver had settled claims by two other women against Lopez in a secret deal using $103,000 in public funds.

The two women, Victoria Burhans and Chloe Rivera, filed the lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in New York City. They said Silver and his staff made no attempt to investigate Lopez or to try to protect the women on Lopez’s staff.

“As a result of Silver’s complete failure to meet his obligations as the most senior official in the Assembly, Lopez continued his deplorable conduct and sexually harassed Burhans and Rivera,” the lawsuit says.

Burhans said Lopez asked her if she wanted to spend the night with him, naked, in the Governor’s Mansion. She said he also told her to have sex with a senior member of the governor’s staff to get one of Lopez’s bills passed.

Although Cuomo couldn’t comment on what Lopez might have said to the woman, Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said the idea of Lopez having access to the mansion for an overnight stay “couldn’t be more absurd.”

Many of the incidents were detailed from testimony provided to the state ethics board and the special prosecutor.

Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat, has denied sexually harassing anyone and hasn’t been charged with a crime. He has resigned his seat to run for New York City Council, and faces civil charges recommended by the state ethics board.

Silver, a lower Manhattan Democrat, has admitted mistakes in handling the secret settlement, made an extraordinary apology and is proposing more changes in the handling of sexual harassment complaints in the Assembly.

Silver spokesman Michael Whyland declined comment today, saying Silver will review the lawsuit when he receives it. Lopez’s attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, had no immediate comment.

Lopez paid $32,000 on top of the $103,000 of public money in the settlement crafted by Silver for the first women who accused Lopez of groping, sexual harassment, and retaliation when they refused him.

The lawsuit, which says the women remain Assembly employees, doesn’t specify how much money is sought if it is successful.

The women also filed a civil suit in state court against the Assembly. If successful, a judgment against the Assembly could be far more than against individuals.

The women’s attorney, Kevin Mintzer, said they don’t believe there has been sufficient accountability in the matter and they “intend to pursue this action to achieve that accountability.”

Silver has faced no sanctions after investigations by the state ethics board and Special Prosecutor Daniel Donovan of Staten Island. Those two investigations, however, have been criticized.

The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics probe appears to have been focused only on possible charges against Lopez, while Donovan’s probe was restricted to incidents in Brooklyn, where Lopez long held political power.

Silver had sent the women’s claims directly to the Assembly ethics committee as required under the chamber’s sexual harassment policy that he ushered in as a result of previous sexual harassment and misconduct against women over several years.

The lawsuit accuses Lopez of unwanted sexual advances and harassment in Albany. The incidents range from forcing his hand up one woman’s upper thigh, kissing, offering a trip with him to Russia, and advising one woman not to wear a bra — then snapping her bra straps.

A Quinnipiac University Poll on Wednesday found that by a 51 percent to 22 percent margin, New York voters questioned said Silver should step down from the leadership post he’s held since 1994 because of the Lopez case. The poll questioned 1,075 voters between May 29 and Monday and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

 
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