Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Harassment Scandal That Threatens To Take Down NYS Democratic Leadership

Over the past couple of weeks, a growing scandal in the New York State Assembly has meant that Assemblyman Vito Lopez lost his chairmanship of the powerful Housing Committee over revelations that he harassed multiple women over a period of years. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stripped Lopez of his chairmanship, but then it was revealed that Silver authorized the payment of a $100k settlement to two women over additional harassment claims.

Then, there's word that NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman signed off on the settlements, which used taxpayer funds, despite claims that Schneiderman's office had not given Speaker Silver guidance.

Speaker Silver admits that he and his office screwed up the handling of Lopez's case.

We have a couple of interrelated issues: (1) the criminal/civil liabilities of Lopez for carrying out harassment in his office, which included suggesting to female staffers that they ought to wear more revealing clothes or go braless; (2) Speaker Silver's handling of the cases and not making the issues public; (3) AG Schneiderman's handling of the case from his office.

It's an issue that threatens to overshadow the convention this week. Censure isn't enough, and a more thorough house cleaning needs to occur, including the Speaker himself:
Mr. Silver announced on Aug. 24 that he was censuring Mr. Lopez, 71, after a bipartisan Assembly ethics committee found credible evidence that Mr. Lopez had groped, kissed and verbally harassed two female employees. Mr. Lopez was also stripped of his chairmanship of the Assembly’s housing committee.

Over the next few days, reports emerged that Mr. Silver had signed off on a $135,000 secret settlement of claims against Mr. Lopez brought by two other women, and that the previous claims were not referred to the Assembly’s ethics committee. Mr. Lopez subsequently said he would not seek another term as chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party but has refused calls to resign his Assembly seat.

“The only time I ever had a conversation with him was about 10 minutes before I issued the letter stripping him of his chairmanship, and then I had a subsequent conversation with him last week and I asked him to resign,” Mr. Silver said. “He obviously didn’t agree with me, but he didn’t say much. He just indicated that he couldn’t — that he wasn’t going to.”

In statements last week, Mr. Silver, the Legislature’s most powerful Democrat, acknowledged mistakes in his handling of the alleged harassment incidents.

“Ultimately, I’m the speaker and I’m responsible, and clearly mistakes were made,” he said on Monday.

Mr. Silver said he first heard about claims made against Mr. Lopez in January. The first two women who brought claims were represented by a team of lawyers that included Gloria Allred, the prominent Los Angeles attorney. They initially sought $1.2 million.

Mr. Silver said his legal staff acted in good faith, explaining that they were trying to avoid costly litigation and to accede to the wishes of the alleged victims.

“What was demanded was tremendously more than what the case was ultimately settled for,” he said, “and the judgment of settling the case was that we will save the state money on potential liabilities here, in addition to the fact that the assemblyman agreed to pay a sum for his own actions.”
Trying to settle the matter makes sense since the costs of litigation could have been far higher, but the failure to refer the matter to the ethics committee was a massive failure on the Speaker's part.

To have the AG lie and obfuscate about his role in signing off on the deal is unforgivable.

This is hardly the first time that Silver has come under fire for botching the handling of harassment or sex abuse in the Assembly; his own staffer was convicted of sexual assault and his office attempted to cover up the details.

For far too long, the state legislature has operated under the Bear Mountain Compact, which is an unwritten rule that what happens in Albany stays in Albany. It created a permissive attitude where legislators can act as they please and ethics and the law were meant for everyone else, but optional for those who enact the law.

Two separate investigations are underway: one by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and another by the Staten Island district attorney who is filling in for the recused Brooklyn prosecutor. Among those allegedly harassed is current NYC City Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who was one of Lopez's staffers.

The JCOPE is hamstrung by the fact that Silver gets to appoint some of its members, and they can limit their investigation rather than going after all the malfeasance involved - meaning that Silver could skate by on his own handling of the growing scandal.

The sad thing is that Silver will win reelection handily (and retain his speakership) and so too will Lopez. While Lopez said that he would not seek reelection past this November, he's going to win handily. Far too many constituents ignore massive problems with the candidates they elect - including criminal behavior. For the legislature to clean up its act, voters have to demand changes. Legislators aren't going to do it to themselves.

Silver's called for Lopez to resign, though Lopez has rebuffed the call thus far. Some Democrats are calling for Lopez to resign immediately, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer (who originally hails from Brooklyn). Those calls need to come hard and fast, and the Assembly Democrats ought to be considering a new speaker but Silver's lasted as long as he has as speaker because he's the consummate professional politicial - dividing and conquering potential alternatives to his speaker's position.

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