New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is the subject of an ethics complaint calling for an investigation into the Manhattan Democrat’s handling of a secret $103,000 payout in a sexual-harassment case against a fellow lawmaker.
Common Cause New York and the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter said they are filing the complaint with the state’s ethics commission today, according to an e-mailed statement. The formal letter allows the commission to begin an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez and the attempts by Silver to hide the payout to two of Lopez’s accusers.
“Sexual harassment is illegal, and revelations that it was handled secretly to protect a powerful member of the Legislature in 2012 in Albany are shocking,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said today in a statement.
The ethics panel “must investigate the extent of Lopez’s misconduct, every thwarted attempt to report it and the failure of process which resulted in that conduct being hidden,” Lerner said. Her group is the state chapter of the national nonprofit founded in 1970 to promote open government.
Silver, 68, Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Governor Andrew Cuomo make up the Albany troika that local pundits call the Three Men in the Room because they often strike deals behind closed doors that get approved by both legislative houses.
“All complaints are reviewed by the commission, but the commission doesn’t comment on any matters that may or may not be before it,” John Milgrim, a spokesman for the Joint Committee on Public Ethics, said in a telephone interview today.
Cuomo yesterday called for a similar investigation by the ethics board. The 54-year-old Democrat created the commission as part of a bundle of bills he pushed through the Legislature last year that are intended to crack down on corruption.
Lopez was stripped of his committee chairmanship Aug. 24. Three days later, state Senator Shirley Huntley was accused in an indictment of trying to cover up the theft of state funds through a nonprofit she created.
The $103,000 payout made in June to two Lopez staff members wasn’t made public and the accusations of sexual harassment weren’t referred to the Assembly’s ethics committee, Silver said in a statement yesterday. Two other Lopez employees filed sexual-harassment complaints with the committee in July, which resulted in Lopez losing his job as head of the housing committee.
The offices of Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman signed off on the payout as part of their routine review of state settlements. Neither official was involved in the negotiations, their offices said.
Silver, who has been speaker since 1994, apologized yesterday for not being transparent about the settlement and accusations. He said the staff members’ attorney requested that the mediation and settlement be kept confidential.
In the case that was sent to the Assembly ethics committee, Lopez is accused by two female staff members of “pervasive, unwelcome verbal conduct,” according to a letter Silver sent to Lopez last week notifying him that he had lost his post.
The Brooklyn assemblyman 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, New Jersey, 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.
Gloria Allred, who represented at least one of the women involved in the settlement, said in a statement to the New York Times, which first reported the hushed payout, that her office didn’t discourage a formal Assembly investigation.
“We believe that it is in the interest of good government and working women that there is full accountability and transparency about workplace sex harassment,” Allred said.
Silver’s apology isn’t enough, Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW’s New York City branch, said in a telephone interview today.
“An apology doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Ossorio said. “The public needs a full accounting of what happened in this case, and we need to know if this has ever happened before. It begs the question, Is this the way Albany works?”
In a statement e-mailed today, Silver invited an investigation by the Joint Committee on Public Ethics.
“I would welcome a JCOPE investigation, as a JCOPE inquiry would supersede any confidentiality agreements that exist and allow all of the facts to come out,” Silver said. “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.”
He said the Assembly has written to lawyers in previous settlement cases asking for a release from confidentiality clauses so he can publicly provide details about them.