New York’s Legislature is once again being dogged by the corruption that has marred its image for decades.
On Aug. 24, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat, was stripped of his committee chairmanship when an ethics committee determined he sexually harassed two staff members, and yesterday Governor Andrew Cuomo called for him to resign if the allegations are true. Today, Senator Shirley Huntley, a Queens Democrat whose nonprofit has been under state investigation, was indicted on charges of conspiracy, tampering with evidence and falsifying business records.
“I want my day in court,” Huntley said at a press conference in front of her home in Jamaica, Queens on Aug. 25. “I don’t know the charges. I have no idea what this is about.”
Cuomo has built a reputation for getting things done in Albany. Where perennial gridlock has stifled previous governors, Cuomo has pushed through a divided Legislature a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and the first consecutive on-time budgets since 2006. Still, the latest allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers shows that the 54-year-old Democrat has more work to do when it comes to cleaning up the scandal-plagued capital.
In December, two people associated with Parent Workshop Inc., a nonprofit Huntley started and to which she directed $30,000 in state funds, were accused of stealing the cash by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat. Two others were accused of covering it up.
Investigating the theft of state funds through a nonprofit is familiar ground for prosecutors in New York. This year, former Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr., a Democrat, was convicted of embezzling $448,000 from a nonprofit health care network he founded. The funds were used on lobster dinners, theater tickets and spa treatments, prosecutors said.
Another former Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, a Republican, was charged this year by federal prosecutors, accused of taking bribes and pleaded not guilty. Senator Carl Kruger, a Democrat, was sentenced to seven years in prison this year for taking payoffs.
Alan Hevesi, a Democrat who as comptroller was the sole trustee of the state’s pension fund, pleaded guilty in October 2010 to approving a $250 million pension investment in exchange for a $1 million kickback. He had resigned in 2006 as part of a separate plea deal struck after he assigned a state employee to be the chauffeur for his ailing wife.
In response to the corruption, Cuomo pushed through the Legislature last year a package of bills meant to tighten ethics controls in part by creating a new commission to investigate allegations.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics began its work in December. This month, Ravi Batra, a Brooklyn lawyer appointed to the body by Senate Democrats, threatened to resign after the commission approved a rule that would require lobbying groups to disclose donors only as of July 1. He said it should have required groups like the Committee to Save New York, which runs campaign-style advertisements backing Cuomo’s initiatives, to divulge their donors from the time the commission was created in June 2011.
Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, are targeting elected officials who use nonprofits to steal public funds through a joint public integrity initiative they started last year. Since 1999, lawmakers have directed more than $900 million in state funds to 20,000 nonprofit entities, Schneiderman has said.
It was Schneiderman and DiNapoli’s initiative that led to the indictment of Huntley’s nonprofit workers in December. The organization was created to help parents navigate the New York City school system, a job Schneiderman has said was never done. The four aides accused have pleaded not guilty.
Huntley, first elected in 2006, is in the midst of a primary battle and said at her press conference that she won’t be stepping down.
“Although our office cannot comment on an ongoing matter, we are aware of the comments made by Senator Huntley,” James Freedland, a Schneiderman spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “The appropriate forum in which to respond to the Senator is a court of law, where the Attorney General will prove all facts according to the rules of evidence. Those facts will speak for themselves.”
Accusations of sexual impropriety are nothing new for New York. Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 amid allegations that he was a customer of a prostitution ring.
Lopez is accused by two female staff members of “pervasive, unwelcome verbal conduct,” according to a letter Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, sent to Lopez last week notifying Lopez that he had lost his job as head of the housing committee.
Lopez also is accused of putting his hand on an aide’s leg. When she removed it, he placed his hand between her upper thighs and moved it “as far up between her legs as you could go,” the letter said. In another incident, he required an aide to take a trip with him to Atlantic City in July. Once there he tried to kiss her and she had to struggle to fend him off, the letter said. On the drive back, he put his hand between her legs, it said.
“Sexual harassment at the workplace cannot be tolerated in any shape or form,” Josh Vlasto, a Cuomo spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “These are serious allegations and if true, the Governor believes he should resign.”
Lopez told the New York Daily News last week he won’t leave office and said the accusations weren’t true. He didn’t return phone calls yesterday.