By Danny Hakim and Thomas Kaplan (New York Times)
September 4, 2012
ALBANY — A defiant Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez said Tuesday that he would not resign from the Legislature over multiple sexual harassment allegations, even as elected officials began to debate whether to seek to expel him and the state’s ethics commission met to discuss an investigation.
Mr. Lopez, the once-powerful head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, called the harassment accusations “politically motivated” and characterized requests for his resignation as “self-serving tactics and demands.”
“Let the constituents of the 53rd Assembly District decide who their representative is,” said Mr. Lopez, who faces no opposition in the Democratic primary next week and only nominal opposition from a little-known Republican in the November general election.
Mr. Lopez has said he will not seek re-election as chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, has stripped him of his committee chairmanship in Albany and called for him to resign. But Senator Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday that he had encouraged Mr. Silver to go further, by considering expulsion of Mr. Lopez from the Assembly.
“I think he should resign today, and I’ve urged the speaker to see if there’s any legal way that the Assembly can remove him,” Mr. Schumer told reporters at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. “I think that there is so much evidence that he has done this multiple times that it’s not enough to say” ‘Oh, he’s not a committee chairman. Oh, he’s not head of the Democratic Party.’ He should be out of office. O-U-T! N-O-W!”
But Mr. Silver, in his own comments to reporters in Charlotte, said moving to oust Mr. Lopez would require a criminal conviction, adding, “If there’s a criminal charge, a criminal conviction, that would be a different set of circumstances.”
Mr. Lopez has not been charged with a crime and has maintained that he did nothing wrong. Daniel M. Donovan Jr., the Staten Island district attorney, began an inquiry into the matter last week, after the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, recused himself, citing political ties to Mr. Lopez.
The state’s ethics commission met in secret on Tuesday to discuss how and whether to proceed in their investigation of the Assembly’s handling of the matter, including Mr. Silver’s decision to authorize a monetary settlement to two members of Mr. Lopez’s staff who alleged that they had been harassed by him. A vote of the 14 commissioners of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics is required before a full investigation can take place and subpoenas can be issued, but commissioners are barred from talking about their investigations and did not comment after meeting for more than two hours.
The ethics commission’s deliberations came as Republicans stepped up their attacks on Mr. Silver, the most powerful Democrat in the Legislature. While Assembly Democrats have been united behind Mr. Silver, two first-term Republicans on Tuesday called for him to step down as speaker. Assemblyman Steve Katz, a Hudson Valley Republican, said he was concerned that Mr. Silver controlled what he called a “slush fund” for paying off victims and called the speaker “the poster child for what happens when somebody is in a leadership position for too long.”
“My argument in this is, what is the difference between Joe Paterno and Sheldon Silver?” Mr. Katz said in an interview. “Both of them hid sex crimes, and the only difference is Sheldon Silver hid it with taxpayer dollars.”
And Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, a Republican from central New York, said she found it “really hard to believe” that Mr. Silver had not settled other sexual harassment complaints without public notice, saying she suspected the Lopez scandal was only “the tip of the iceberg.”
“This is a bright-line ethics violation: it’s not like it’s something that we should just apologize for and move on,” Ms. Tenney said on “The Capitol Pressroom,”a radio program.
The scandal surrounding Mr. Silver began on Aug. 24, when he said he was censuring Mr. Lopez, 71, after a bipartisan Assembly ethics committee found credible evidence that Mr. Lopez had groped, kissed and verbally harassed two female employees. Reports emerged that Mr. Silver had approved a $135,000 secret settlement of claims against Mr. Lopez brought by two other women earlier this year.
Mr. Silver has said he now believes that agreeing to a secret settlement was wrong, and has also said the earlier case should have been referred to the Assembly ethics committee.