By Danny Hakim (New York Times)
August 24, 2012
ALBANY — Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, one of the last powerful Democratic Party bosses in New York City, was abruptly stripped of his committee chairmanship and censured Friday after he was accused of sexually harassing two women who worked in his district office this summer.
Mr. Lopez, 71, is a longtime fixture of Brooklyn politics, and an irascible kingmaker: he has served in the Assembly since 1984, and has headed the Brooklyn Democratic Party since 2005.
But on Friday, he faced what had once been unimaginable: widespread calls for his resignation, after charges that he verbally harassed, groped and kissed the women without their consent.
Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, who has in the past been criticized for mishandling sexual misconduct claims against lawmakers, surprised the local political world Friday with a sharply worded rebuke of Mr. Lopez, who had been an ally. Mr. Silver not only removed Mr. Lopez as chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, but reduced the size of his staff, barred him from employing interns or anyone under the age of 21 and denied him any perquisites he had accrued based on his seniority.
Despite the reference to interns and people under 21, the speaker did not indicate the age or position of either woman in Mr. Lopez’s office.
“I hereby censure and admonish you on behalf of the New York State Assembly and its Members, and declare that your conduct with respect to this matter violates the Assembly’s Sexual Harassment/Retaliation Policy and is inconsistent with the standards of conduct to which Members of the Assembly should be held,” Mr. Silver wrote.
But many said the censure was not enough. Among those calling for his resignation were several Democratic officeholders, including Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker; Bill de Blasio, the public advocate; Representative Jerrold Nadler, and Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan Borough president.
Mr. Lopez did not return a call seeking comment, but his lawyer, Gerald B. Lefcourt, said Mr. Lopez denied the claims, and criticized the Assembly’s investigation of the complaints as “a lawless enterprise.”
“This was entirely without due process — there were no witnesses, no cross-examination, no hearing,” he said. He added, “It’s beyond any notion of American legal proceeding.”
Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said that he had decided to censure Mr. Lopez after the Assembly’s ethics committee — made up of four Democrats and four Republicans — ruled unanimously that claims that Mr. Lopez had verbally and physically harassed the employees were credible. “There were multiple incidents of unwelcome physical conduct toward one complainant, wherein you put your hand on her leg, she removed your hand, and you then put your hand between her upper thighs, putting your hand as far up between her legs as you could go,” Mr. Silver wrote, describing the committee’s findings.
He also said, “There was pervasive unwelcome verbal conduct by you toward both complainants from early June 2012 until the time they made complaints of sexual harassment in mid-July 2012, including repeated comments about their physical appearance, their bodies, their attire, and their private relationships.”
He said that Mr. Lopez “required” one of the women to travel with him to Atlantic City last month, where he attempted to kiss her, and that “she struggled to fend you off before you stopped, and that on the drive back from Atlantic City you again put your hand between her legs.”
Kevin Mintzer, a lawyer for the two women, said in a statement that “the complainants’ experience working for Mr. Lopez was a terrible ordeal.” The statement continued, “His behavior toward them was both unlawful and morally reprehensible.” Neither Mr. Silver nor Mr. Mintzer named the women.“The sanctions imposed in this matter are substantial and fully warranted,” Mr. Mintzer added. Mr. Mintzer said his clients had not decided whether to sue, saying only, “We’ll evaluate and determine next steps.” But, he said, “Mr. Lopez should resign his office immediately.”
The Assembly has faced a string of sexual harassment allegations in recent years, and for Mr. Silver it is a particularly sensitive topic. In 2003, he faced accusations that he did not respond aggressively to rape allegations against a former top Assembly aide, J. Michael Boxley, who pleaded guilty that year to sexual misconduct. Two years earlier, an Assembly employee had brought a complaint of sexual assault against Mr. Boxley to the Assembly leadership, but the investigation was closed without action.
Since that time, the Assembly has confronted other sexual misconduct concerns. In 2006, Assemblyman Ryan Karben, a Democrat from Rockland County, resigned amid claims that he watched pornography with three interns. In 2007, Assemblyman Mike Cole, a Republican from western New York, was removed from his post as ranking member of the Assembly Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse after revelations that he had slept at the home of a 21-year-old female intern after a night of heavy drinking. And in 2008, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat who now works for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, had an affair with a former intern.
Long considered Brooklyn’s patronage king, Mr. Lopez is the founder of the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a nonprofit organization that has received millions in government contracts and also employs his longtime girlfriend, Angela M. Battaglia, who serves on the New York City Planning Commission. City and federal authorities have in the past scrutinized Mr. Lopez’s relationship to nonprofit groups, in particular the Ridgewood Bushwick organization, but he has not been charged.
Few party leaders preside with such singular and unyielding authority as Mr. Lopez, or are regarded as so influential. In 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s aides sought his help in convincing the City Council to allow the mayor to run for a third term, and Caroline Kennedy had lunch with Mr. Lopez as she tried to win support for an appointment to the United States Senate.
William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.