A pair of reports on sexual harassment complaints against a state assemblyman is a terrible indictment of the Assembly and Speaker Sheldon Silver who was more intent on protecting his chamber than victimized women.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics accuse the speaker and other state officials of violating the public trust with a secret agreement to cover up a series of sexual harassment allegations against Assemblyman Vito Lopez without referring the allegations to the Assembly Ethics Committee.
After complaints by two women that they were sexually harassed by Assemblyman Lopez surfaced last summer, it became known that Speaker Silver had orchestrated a $103,000 secret settlement to end previous complaints by two other women relying on a confidentiality clause that was not sought by the two women. The initial complaints were not referred to the Ethics Committee for investigation, as required by Assembly rules.
Resolving the complaints in this secretive manner and requiring a confidentiality clause edited by Assembly Member Lopez apparently encouraged him to continue the inappropriate conduct, Mr. Donovan said. Yet he said the conduct did not rise to the level of crime in Brooklyn despite Assemblyman Lopezs despicable conduct outlined by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
It concluded that Mr. Lopez violated the state Public Officers Law by using the powers and perks of his office to engage in prolonged mistreatment of female staff members. He rewarded those who tolerated his advances and demeaning comments on their dress and appearance while punishing those who rejected him. The assemblyman used his foot to touch a woman under a restaurant table in a manner described as sexual in nature. He later told the woman he wanted to go get drunk with her and turn the corner with her. He was accused of touching another woman staffer on a trip to Atlantic City and instructed one woman not to wear a bra.
JCOPE said Assembly Lopez engaged in a pervasive pattern of abuse of public office and resources, not for a personal financial gain, but to indulge his personal whims and desires.
Criminal? Mr. Donovan says no. But Assemblyman Lopzes sleazy behavior certainly constituted sexual harassment by creating at the very least a hostile environment subjecting women to offensive conduct and then using his office to retaliate when his advances were rejected.
The special prosecutor faulted the offices of the state comptroller and attorney general for not doing more to block the secretive payoff using taxpayer money, saying their handling of the allegations fell short of what the public has the right to expect. That can be said of everyone involved in mishandling the shameful affair.
Assembly Speaker has admitted the settlement was wrong. However, the failure to discipline Mr. Lopez then enabled him to continue his degrading conduct. And the speaker initiated changes only after the secret, $103,000 settlement came to light.
Speaker Silver has rejected calls for him to resign. However, he was expected to ask the Assembly to expel Mr. Lopez, which should have happened long ago.
Beyond that, lawmakers have to institute changes with greater openness and transparency to assure New Yorkers that sexual harassment in the Legislature will be dealt with forcefully and another Vito Lopez will not be tolerated in their ranks.