Albany's puppet master has gone too far.
The Assembly marionettes, the smiles chipping off their wooden faces, have silently danced under the strings of Sheldon Silver for too long. They've kicked up their heels in unison while the master manipulator from Manhattan has conducted business behind the curtain. They've kept their hollow little heads free from the knowledge of what's really going on.
What has been happening backstage?
Silver, the State Legislature's Democrat-in-charge, was quietly arranging public payoffs for those whose complaints might ruin the show.
Even for Albany, this is too much.
First came accusations of crude workplace behavior by Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez of Brooklyn. Then came word of a secret settlement of public money to make earlier complaints go away. Meanwhile, those who should be the state's watchdogs whimpered in the background, claiming they didn't know, despite their staff's involvement.
And the marionettes danced, rallying around their leader last week even after Silver acknowledged that it was wrong to keep silent about $103,080 in public payments to settle accusations of sexual harassment against Lopez. It won't happen again, the Assembly speaker said. He welcomes an ethics investigation. He says it was "ethical" and "legally correct" to keep it all hidden from taxpayers - and from the voters who sent Lopez to Albany.
The despicable details spilled out in the New York Times last week as former staffers from Lopez's office described an atmosphere straight out of the types of skits you see in workplace videos warning employees that sexual harassment is wrong: Former staffers told the Times that some women were asked to dress without bras, to wear short skirts, high heels. Some described a hostile environment, intimidation.
There also were allegations that the Assembly's ethics panel found credible: That Lopez tried to kiss a staffer in Atlantic City. That there was "pervasive unwelcome verbal conduct" toward two workers. That he twice put his hand between a staffer's legs. That he required workers to write about how much they cared about him. It's not just vulgar behavior. It's just plain creepy.
Why would any voter want to keep this man in office? That is, if they knew about his randy advances. But they weren't going to learn about two earlier complaints lodged against Lopez.
That's where Silver's loyalty show pays off. Some people get fired for sexual harassment. If you're part of the Albany elite, apparently, you get unwitting taxpayer help sweeping it away.
This might have just been another downstate disgrace. Lopez was given a slap on the wrist, stripped of his leadership post and told he couldn't hire interns or young staffers after the Assembly ended its investigation.
Then the Times revealed the secret payouts and the earlier complaints.
Now it's a statewide scandal that should worry us all, because it pulls back the curtain on the troubling practice of secrecy that shrouds the State Legislature. Silver & Co. run the show like a privately held company - where payments are none of your business and the rank and file is informed on a need-to-know basis.
Meanwhile, the marionettes just keep on dancing.