By Danny Hakim (New York Times)
August 27, 2012
ALBANY — Sheldon Silver, the New York State Assembly speaker, authorized a secret payment of $103,080 to settle sexual harassment claims against Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez this year, according to records released by the Assembly on Monday night.
Mr. Lopez, 71, was censured by the Assembly on Friday after an internal investigation substantiated sexual harassment allegations brought by two female employees in his office. But The New York Times reported over the weekend that a previous sexual harassment claim was quietly settled by the Assembly earlier this year, in an arrangement that included public money, a confidentiality agreement and mandatory attendance by Mr. Lopez at a sexual harassment workshop.
The revelation about the amount of money that the Assembly paid to quietly settle a harassment case is sure to further stoke debate about the handling of harassment cases by Mr. Silver, the Legislature’s most powerful Democrat for the last 15 years. Officials familiar with the Assembly said they knew of no precedent for such a secret payment, and government watchdog groups called for an investigation.
The previous claim was brought by at least one other woman who worked for Mr. Lopez — and possibly more than one — and who was represented by Gloria Allred, the prominent Los Angeles lawyer. The $103,080 does not represent the full size of the settlement, because money controlled by Mr. Lopez was used as well, people with knowledge of the deal said — though it was not clear if it was from his personal finances, campaign money or money affiliated with his nonprofit group. Mr. Lopez also spent $46,000 on legal fees in March and April, according to state records.
Several people said it was two women, not one, who were involved in the settlement that was negotiated among the state, Mr. Lopez’s representative and Ms. Allred. The settlement was paid by the state on June 13, about two and a half months before Mr. Lopez was censured by the Assembly based on the allegations that he sexually harassed two other women.
Mr. Lopez, an ally of Mr. Silver who is the head of the Democratic Party in Brooklyn, is among the most powerful Democrats in New York. In a statement Monday, Mr. Lopez said, “The charges made against me are unfair and untrue. Never did I intentionally touch or attempt to kiss either of the complainants. I have never forced myself on anyone, nor would I.”
“I have no intention of resigning, and instead look forward to continuing to represent my constituents to the best of my ability,” he added.
Since the censure on Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senator Charles E. Schumer and several lawmakers have called for Mr. Lopez’s resignation.
Edward F. Cox, the chairman of the state Republican Party, called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the case.
“If in fact this goes back to the Assembly leadership, this is something where a special prosecutor is needed, or else the Democratic establishment is covering up a cover up,” Mr. Cox said in an interview. “It was done to cover up what I assume was a crime and to settle it with hush money. That is a violation of the law.”Mr. Silver censured Mr. Lopez Friday after the Assembly’s ethics committee — made up of four Democrats and four Republicans — ruled unanimously that claims by the two women that Mr. Lopez had verbally and physically harassed them were credible. The earlier claim was not referred to the ethics committee.
Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, an advocacy group, called Monday for the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics to review the payment.
“Taxpayers should be funding public education, not to sweep harassment charges aside for bad elected officials,” he said. “While we need to respect the wishes of the staff person, the public has a right to know when an elected official misbehaves and the state pays for it.”
“This is just unfathomable that such deplorable behavior by an elected official could be kept from the public,” he added.
Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, has also called for an investigation by the state ethics commission, and called the latest revelations “shocking” — particularly that Mr. Lopez was censured for harassing women shortly after settling a claim for sexual harassment.
“Clearly Lopez did not get the message,” she said, adding, “Assemblyman Lopez’s conduct in the ensuing months was worse, not better.”
“The fact and the size of the settlement raise questions as to whether this is the only instance of sexual misconduct that predates the censure,” she said.
The speaker has declined to discuss why he kept previous allegations from the public and used public money in a settlement.
Mr. Silver has previously been accused of responding slowly to accusations of sexual misconduct. In 2003, one of his top aides, J. Michael Boxley, was accused of rape and later pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct; he had earlier been accused of sexual assault. Assembly members were also embroiled in scandals involving current or former interns in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
In a statement Monday, Michael Whyland, an Assembly spokesman, would not specifically discuss the settlement, but generally speaking, said: “The only instance in which a complaint would not be handled by the ethics committee would be if a victim insisted for reasons of personal privacy that it not go before the committee. The Assembly would only keep such a matter confidential at the express insistence of the victim.”
Mr. Silver described the allegations that led him to censure Mr. Lopez in a graphic letter released Friday.
“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,” he wrote.
He added that one of the complainants was assaulted by Mr. Lopez after he required her to accompany him on a trip to Atlantic City. “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,” Mr. Silver wrote.
Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting from New York.