ALBANY A New York resident on Thursday sued Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to try to force the Democrat to reimburse taxpayers for a $103,000 secret settlement of sexual harassment claims against another assemblyman.
Robert Schulz said Silver’s settlement last year to address sexual harassment claims by women staffers against then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez violated the state constitution, which prohibits public money from being used for a “private undertaking.” He has successfully sued past state officials as part of the We The People of New York group.
“Our elected officials take an oath to obey the New York state and federal constitutions,” Schultz said after filing the lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Albany. “Mr. Silver has admitted he did not handle the matter properly. The money belongs to the taxpayers of this state and has no business being used for this purpose.”
Silver has apologized for the 2012 settlement and is pushing reforms to make sure established procedure is followed for any future sexual harassment allegations. He had no immediate response to the lawsuit Thursday.
Lopez has been accused of groping, intimidating and trying to coerce young women on his staff. He was accused of pushing his hand up a woman’s thigh during an Atlantic City trip that investigators said had nothing to do with state business.
Lopez has denied sexually harassing anyone and is now running for New York City Council. Lopez paid $32,000 in the settlement in addition to the public money, which was identified only as a cost for legal services. Elements of the settlement had been reviewed by top staff of the state Attorney General’s Office and the Comptroller’s Office.
Lopez hasn’t been accused of any crime, but the state Legislative Ethics Commission levied a $330,000 fine against him.
Schulz also made an argument for the court to order unspecified punitive damages, claiming Silver caused “pain and suffering” and harm to the state. He said the punitive damages also would serve as a deterrent to any similar settlements.
Schulz, 71, is a retired engineer who isn’t a lawyer. He has spent decades filing more than 100 lawsuits including a current one to stop Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s gun control law adopted in January. He’s funded most of his court battles since 1979 against former Gov. Mario Cuomo, former Comptroller H. Carl McCall and others by selling off parcels of his farm on Lake George.
“The state constitution is above the Legislature, above the governor,” Schulz said in an interview. “It’s used to tell them what they can and cannot do.”
Schulz seeks reimbursement of the full $103,080 in public money used to settle the first sexual harassment claims against Lopez last summer. The lawsuit also seeks interest at a rate of 10 percent a year retroactive to June 2012, when the settlement was final.
He doesn’t seek any specific compensation for his cost of filing and defending the suit.
Silver has 20 days to respond to the suit.
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