Update: On September 10, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) — Albany’s official watchdog — voted unaminously to conduct a broad investigation into everyone’s actions surrounding the allegations of sexual harassment against Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, including those of Speaker Sheldon Silver, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Controller Tom DiNapoli, the New York Post reports. The Commission debated opening the meeting to the public, but the decision to go public was voted down.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of New York State’s most powerful politicians, is in the hot seat this week over his handling of Lopez’ s sexual harassment scandal. Good government groups had called on the state ethics commission to investigate both Lopez and the Assembly’s handling of the scandal.
On Wednesday, Common Cause NY and the National Organization for Women in New York City (NOW-NYC) announced that they were filing a joint complaint to the ethics committee Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which was created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The scandal began last Friday when the Assembly censured Lopez after the ethics committee substantiated claims from two female staffers who accused the assemblyman of sexual harassment. Then, over the weekend, the scandal widened when the New York Times reported that Speaker Silver had authorized a secret payout of over $100,000 to the alleged victims of an earlier, separate case of sexual harassment against Lopez. Elected officials, including the governor, expressed outrage at the clandestine deal, and the fact that it was sealed with public dollars.
“Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s reported acts of sexual harassment against numerous employees make him entirely unfit to serve the public in any capacity. Just as disturbing is Speaker Silver’s cover-up of Lopez’s earlier transgressions, which demonstrate an ongoing acceptance and tolerance for sexual harassment,” Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW NYC, wrote in the complaint.
Silver acknowledged that he made a mistake, but said he did not technically commit any act of wrongdoing, and that he shouldn’t be investigated.
“I take full responsibility in not insisting that all cases go to the ethics committee,” Silver said in a statement to the New York Times. “While that opinion is both legally correct and ethical and can result in a resolution sought by complaining employees, I now believe it was the wrong one from the perspective of transparency.”
David Grandeau, who was in charge of a similar ethics commission to JCOPE under Gov. George Pataki, said JCOPE isn’t the right body to investigate sexual harassment, but it is the right body to investigate the Assembly’s handling of the sexual harassment allegations.
“If there is pattern of sexual harassment in the legislature, and I happen to think there probably is, my wife worked there, the AG’s [Attorney General’s] civil rights bureau should look at it, that’s the kind of thing they should be doing. Jcope doesn’t have jurisdiction, they don’t have the competency and they don’t have the moral high ground,” Grandeau told Susan Arbetter on a recent episode of the Capitol Report.
Lopez continues to deny wrongdoing, refusing to resign, but said that he will not seek reelection as Brooklyn Party Chairman next month.