By Danny Hakim (New York Times)
August 31, 2012
ALBANY — The Staten Island district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., was named on Friday as a special prosecutor to investigate Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez of Brooklyn in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal.
The move came after the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, requested a special prosecutor to investigate Mr. Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader. Mr. Hynes recused himself after citing his own political ties to Mr. Lopez, who has supported his re-election campaigns.
The development deepened the legal troubles of Mr. Lopez and the State Assembly. The state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics has already begun its own preliminary review of the Assembly’s handling of sexual harassment claims made against Mr. Lopez and has scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday.
The investigation, Mr. Hynes said, was precipitated by the Assembly’s censure of Mr. Lopez, 71, on Aug. 24, after a bipartisan ethics committee found credible evidence that Mr. Lopez had groped, kissed and verbally harassed two female employees. It did not appear to be related to an earlier secret settlement of claims brought by two other women who had worked for Mr. Lopez.
In addition to potential violations of the penal law, Mr. Hynes, in a court petition, cited potential violations “of the election law,” raising questions about the scope of the review. It was not clear what violations of the state election law would be scrutinized, but some former Assembly employees who had worked for Mr. Lopez and who spoke to The New York Times about what they said was his abusive behavior said they had been routinely forced to perform political work.
Mr. Lopez has said he did nothing wrong; his office did not return calls for comment.
The war of words over the Lopez scandal, meanwhile, continued.
On Friday, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman weighed in personally for the first time, criticizing the Assembly’s handling of the matter and defending his office’s conduct. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, has been criticized for authorizing a secret $135,000 settlement in June with two women who had made claims against Mr. Lopez, two months before the Assembly censured Mr. Lopez for allegedly harassing two other women.
“The decision of the Assembly to keep secret the provision of and even the existence of a settlement agreement was wholly inappropriate and contrary to the public interest,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “Our office policy requires that agreements of this kind do not include confidentiality provisions.”
But a top Assembly lawyer did consult a number of times with a staff lawyer in the attorney general’s office about the settlement agreement as it was developed, and even provided the office with a draft agreement that included an extensive confidentiality clause.
The attorney general’s office did not see a final draft, however; in the final settlement, which was obtained by The New York Times, there is an added phrase that says even “the fact of this agreement” should remain secret, not just its terms and circumstances.
Gloria Allred, one of the lawyers who represented the two women in the June settlement, continued to criticize Mr. Silver for his handling of the matter.
“It is time for Mr. Silver to stop his attempts to deflect responsibility for his and the Assembly’s own misconduct and to take a good, hard look in the mirror at the actual events that really occurred,” she said on Friday, expressing particular frustration about an article in The New York Post that publicized the names of the women involved in the settlement.
Mr. Silver, for his part, has acknowledged that he had made a mistake in agreeing to a secret settlement and in not referring the earlier claims to the Assembly’s ethics committee.