Special Prosecutor Sought for Vito Lopez Probe

By Jacob Gershman (Wall Street Journal)
August 31, 2012

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes moved Friday to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct a criminal probe of sexual-harassment allegations against Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

Hynes said he recused himself from the investigation because of his political connections to Lopez, who until this week had been head of the Kings County Democratic Party. Lopez backed Hynes’s 2009 reelection campaign, and the district attorney said he had talked to Lopez about an endorsement for next year’s race.

The political alliance “had the potential to create an appearance of impropriety,” Hynes said Friday. An attorney for Lopez didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Lopez, a powerful lawmaker from Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, was rebuked after an Assembly ethics panel found he had sexually harassed two female employees. The allegations described unwanted advances and inappropriate comments, including a claim by one woman that Lopez pushed his hand between her legs during a recent trip to Atlantic City.

In a news release Friday, Hynes said some of the alleged harassment occurred in Brooklyn, giving his office jurisdiction. “Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, chair of the [ethics] committee, advised me that some of the conduct did occur in Kings County,” Hynes said.

Hynes said he has asked state Supreme Court Justice Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts, to appoint as special prosecutor a district attorney within the same judicial department, which encompasses Queens, Staten Island and nearby suburban counties.

Two other women earlier accused Lopez of sexual harassment but resolved their claims in a confidential settlement that required the state to pay more than $100,000 in damages and attorney fees. Attorneys for those women initially demanded $1.2 million, according to state officials.

As a result of the ethics committee’s findings, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last week censured Lopez and ousted him as chairman of a housing committee. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, approved the secret payment to settle the earlier harassment accusations against Lopez.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for another ethics panel to look into the circumstances behind the settlement, which was reviewed by high-level counsels to the state attorney general and state comptroller.