- Under Cover
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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is in hot water after it was revealed that the state Assembly paid a secret settlement of more than $100,000 to two female interns of Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Vito Lopez after they alleged that Lopez sexually harassed them.
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked his Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to launch a probe into the situation surrounding the payout.
Subsequent to the date of the secret settlement, Lopez came under fire late last month after he was publicly censured by the Assembly in connection with two other complaints of harassment by female interns. Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, initially said the first sexual harassment claim was handled quietly — and not referred to the Assembly’s Ethics Committee — because the woman making the complaint wanted to guard her privacy.
However, attorney Gloria Allred, who represented the woman, said that wasn’t the case and
that she would never squelch a government investigation.
The Daily News editorialized last week that the payout of New Yorkers’ taxpayer dollars to settle the initial Lopez harassment complaint may well have exceeded the reported $103,800 — since that is apparently only what Allred was paid for what were indicated as “legal services.”
The News has filed a Freedom of Information Law request for all documents pertaining to the “cover-up” of the secret settlement — a settlement for which a staff member of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman gave advice on and for which State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli O.K.’d the payment.
In a statement released on Aug. 28, Silver said, “In July 2012, two employees in Assemblymember Vito Lopez’s district office filed a complaint about sexual harassment in the assemblymember’s office. We referred the complaint promptly to the bipartisan Assembly Committee on Ethics and Guidance and acted swiftly on their recommendations [on Fri., Aug. 24].”
That same week, Silver bumped Lopez off of his committee chairmanship and prohibited him from hiring young aides, per the recommendation of the Assembly Ethics Committee.
“However, it has been the opinion of Assembly counsel, which I endorsed, that if an employee or employees represented by counsel request a confidential mediation and financial settlement, the Assembly would defer to the employees’ desire for mediation and confidentiality, and that this precluded referring their complaints to the bipartisan Committee on Ethics and Guidance.
Silver admitted, “While that opinion is both legally correct and ethical and can result in a resolution sought by complaining employees, I now believe it was the wrong one from the perspective of transparency.” Moving forward, he said, the Assembly should not agree to a confidential settlement and insist that basic factual allegations of any complaint be referred to the Ethics Committee for a full investigation. Thirdly, the Assembly should publicly announce settlements while protecting the identity of the victims, he said.
Silver continued by saying he is deeply committed to ensuring that all Assembly employees are treated with respect and dignity. “I take full responsibility in not insisting that all cases go to the Ethics Committee,” he said. “Going forward, I will work with independent experts and our counsel’s office to ensure that we put in place policies that both protect the interests of victims and provide adequate transparency and accountability to the public.”
In a subsequent statement, Silver also said he would welcome a JCOPE investigation that would supersede any existing confidentiality agreements and allow for full disclosure of all the facts. “Those facts will show that any decision by the Assembly to enter into any settlement agreement was both legal and ethical and made out of deference to the wishes of the complainants,” Silver said.
On Sept. 3, a week after the news broke, Silver told reporters covering the Democratic National Convention that he had asked Lopez to resign over the phone. “I felt what he did was wrong,” he said. “I also felt that the sanctions that I had to impose on him would make him ineffective…as a representative of his constituents, and I felt it would be best for him personally — and as a message for the institution of the Assembly — that he resign.”
Meanwhile, most local legislators have been declining to comment on the secret settlement. Last week, however, many of them were happy to call for Vito Lopez’s being stripped of his committee chairpersonship — or even more, for his resignation from the Assembly. But to say anything against the Speaker — the state’s second-most powerful Democrat after Governor Cuomo — is another matter entirely.
“No comment,” said Kelly Magee, Councilmember Margaret Chin’s spokesperson. Chin’s Lower Manhattan district overlaps with Silver’s.
In a written statement, Senator Daniel Squadron called Vito Lopez’s behavior shocking, abhorrent and “completely unacceptable.” “The Speaker was right to strip him of all seniority, and I continue to urge Lopez to resign his seat,” he said. “As the Speaker said, there were mistakes made, and going forward I am confident that all claims against elected officials will be dealt with aggressively and transparently.”
Other elected officials simply did not respond to requests for comment, including Borough President Scott Stringer and Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh and Dick Gottfried. Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, who has no love lost for Lopez — whose handpicked candidate she recently defeated in a primary race — also did not return calls for comment.
When Council Speaker Christine Quinn was asked to comment on the scandal, her office initially sent the following statement, which referred to the two publicly known cases of sexual harassment by Assemblymember Lopez: “There must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment in all workplaces, always,” Quinn said. “Chairman Daniel O’Donnell and the Assembly Committee on Ethics and Guidance have conducted a serious, thorough investigation and Speaker Sheldon Silver’s actions [stripping Lopez of his committee chairpersonship] are warranted and appropriate. Because of the seriousness of these findings, Vito Lopez should immediately resign from office and step down as chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.”
Asked for a comment specifically on the secret payment, Quinn’s office sent this statement: “Speaker Silver has admitted that he should have handled the situation differently and has made appropriate reforms going forward. I agree that JCOPE is the correct venue to review this matter.”
Matt Borden, Assemblymember Deborah Glick’s chief of staff, said Glick was unavailable for further comment but has been quoted in a few other places, and said to feel free to use those statements.
Glick told the Albany Times Union that Silver seems to have done everything he could, even if settlement payments were made for some victims of Lopez.
“We spend a lot of money to settle claims against public employees,” Glick said. “Men behaving badly is not limited to Albany, and that women in the workplace continue to face these things, it’s disgraceful.” According to the Times Union, Glick said the Assembly offers an open path for reporting incidents of harassment, and regular training for staff and members is conducted.
“We cannot change individuals without a brain transplant or something,” Glick said.
New York taxpayers shelled out big bucks five years ago to settle a case against Michael Boxley, Silver’s then counsel, brought by a woman who claimed Boxley had raped her in 2003. The woman charged that Boxley was a known predator within Silver’s office. She sued Silver for negligence and accepted a $507,500 settlement and a promise of reforms to remove any peril from the workplace. However, taxpayers ultimately paid about $500,000 of that bill. Boxley pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual misconduct.
Joseph Santora, a retired litigator, later sued to have Boxley and Silver foot the bill. But State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman ruled that, because state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer authorized that the payment be borne by taxpayers, Silver and Boxley should not subsequently be forced to repay the money, and that voters could express their view when they cast their ballots.
“If in representing state officers in their official or individual capacities, the Attorney General errs in judgment in the conduct of the litigation, the remedy lies not before the Supreme Court, but at the polls,” Justice Goodman wrote.
Last week, Governor Cuomo asserted that it is the state’s responsibility to try to settle these cases.
Arthur Schwartz, Greenwich Village’s State Democratic Committeeman, was one of the only local elected officials to openly criticize Silver over the latest developments. He told Community Media, “I think that Lopez should resign, and I am greatly disappointed that Assemblymember Silver participated in covering up the first incident and then using public money to pay damages to the complainant. Lopez should have been forced to pay.”
— Additional reporting by Aline Reynolds