News Coverage on Ethics
Speaker Says He Asked Assemblyman to ResignDanny Hakim
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver asked one of his most prominent members to resign last Friday amid a sexual harassment scandal but was rebuffed, Mr. Silver said in an interview on Monday.
Mr. Silver spoke to reporters for the first time about the scandal that last week engulfed the Assembly and one of its most powerful members, Vito J. Lopez of Brooklyn. Mr. Silver is in Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic National Convention, where he is scheduled to announce the New York delegation’s support for President Obama during the roll call later this week.
“I don’t think he’ll be effective as a member representing his constituents, interacting with his colleagues,” Mr. Silver said of Mr. Lopez. “He’s been used to being a committee chair — he won’t be a committee chair anymore, and his ability will be impaired significantly as a legislator.”
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 health 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.”
“Having said that, the confidentiality agreement came out of mediation, and it should not have been agreed to, and that’s the No. 1 mistake we made; and No. 2 was not sending it to the ethics commission,” he said. “And we will not do either one of those again in the future, should the occasion arise.”
The Assembly did consult with both the attorney general’s office and the state comptroller’s office as they crafted the settlement, but both of those offices have emphasized that they played a limited role. The attorney general’s office did not formally represent the Assembly, but one of their staff attorneys provided guidance and had a number of conversations with an Assembly attorney, though the attorney general’s office did not see a copy of the final agreement.
“My understanding was that my counsels were in touch with the attorney general’s office — they did not represent us, but my counsels did consult with the attorney general’s office as they deemed appropriate during the proceeding,” Mr. Silver said. “The comptroller’s office was aware of the proceeding and ultimately aware of the settlement, and issued a check for the settlement.”
Two investigations have already arisen from the scandal, one by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics and another by the Staten Island district attorney, who is serving as a special prosecutor after the Brooklyn district attorney recused himself because of political ties to Mr. Lopez.
Speaking of his relationship over the years with Mr. Lopez, Mr. Silver said: “I didn’t go to dinner with him every night; we had a good working relationship on housing issues. Socially we were in different places.” He added, “I was shocked about the allegations.”
Mr. Silver has come under fire before for his handling of sex harassment claims made by women who work for the Assembly, but he said he was determined to be responsive to victims.
“One of the messages we don’t want to send to potential future victims — we hope there wouldn’t be any — is that they shouldn’t come in to make a complaint because of what’s taken place,” he said.