As Lopez resigns, NY Assembly Democrats plan reforms
CAPITOL New York Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s resignation Monday over sexual harassment claims against him derailed a public review that could have examined the role of powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in the scandal and his continued leadership.
Silver had crafted a $103,000 secret settlement to end the first set of allegations of sexual harassment against Lopez. The deal became public last year, and two investigations into Lopez criticized Silver’s actions.
Last week, Silver tried to force the Assembly to consider expelling Lopez, a veteran Brooklyn Democrat, by conducting a review of the investigations. He announced the expulsion effort Thursday night, saying he would ask an Assembly committee to recommend sanctions against Lopez, including possibly expulsion. Silver offered a resolution Friday that recommended Lopez be removed from office.
But Lopez’s resignation ended Silver’s plan.
Meanwhile, newspaper editorial boards and some women’s group called on Silver himself to resign or face a public vote on the leadership post he’s held since 1994.
“It would be for the members to decide, but I don’t see that happening,” Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said Monday.
The Assembly’s Democratic majority was in closed-door session Monday to decide on reforms to avoid more sexual harassment by members.
“The speaker has said from the start that we have made serious mistakes in the way this handled, although we believed at the time we were acting according to the best wishes of the victims,” said Silver spokesman Michael Whyland.
Last year after the secret settlement and subsequent accusations were made public, Silver said he wouldn’t engage in any other secret settlements using public money. The settlement avoided the Assembly’s own policies for handling such accusations, which could have made the claims public far sooner.
Silver has said he was acting to protect the victims, although attorneys for the first victims denied they asked to avoid a public investigation. The report by special prosecutor Daniel Donovan, who conducted one of the investigations, stated that Silver and Lopez, not the women, sought confidentiality.
“The chief concern of those in the Assembly was mitigating the Assembly’s damages,” Donovan said in his report released last week. “That goal outweighed any interest in investigating or disciplining Assembly Member Lopez or in preventing similar occurrences.”
The other investigation, by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, provided a review of Silver’s role, but didn’t recommend any sanctions against him.
Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union good-government group is concerned that the commission wasn’t allowed to further investigate the role of Silver and his top aides in handling the Lopez case. The panel’s complex rules allow its members who were appointed by lawmakers or the governor to block an investigation.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, head of the state Democratic party, hasn’t asked for Silver, a fellow Democrat, to resign as speaker. Cuomo, who called on Lopez to resign or be expelled, said Assembly Democrats should decide who to lead them.
A New York Times editorial Saturday called for Silver’s replacement because he “failed to provide an environment in which young women could work without fear of being sexually assaulted by a bully like Mr. Lopez.”
A day later, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle said “Silver’s confessed bungling of the Lopez affair” should prompt a public vote by the Assembly on Silver’s future as speaker. “Get serious about corruption and cover-up in Albany,” the editorial said. “Send Silver home.”
The Common Cause good-government group also seeks a public accounting of Silver and how each Assembly member votes on his leadership.
The Lopez case shows there is a question of how well the Legislature can police itself, said Susan Lerner of Common Cause.
“What assurances do we have,” she asked, “that a robust sexual harassment policy will be followed?”