ALBANY – Women staff members working for Assemblyman Vito Lopez say the 71-year-old Brooklyn Democrat told them to wear sexy clothing to the office, requested that they stay with him in hotel rooms, made regular comments about their bodies and groped them.
But when the women took their complaints to the top leaders in the Assembly, all the way to Speaker Sheldon Silver, the reaction was less about helping the female staff members and more about political damage control by Democrats looking to protect the Assembly and one of their most politically powerful members, a special prosecutor reported Wednesday.
After recent weeks of unrelated scandals in the Legislature involving embezzlement, bribery, theft of public funds and attempted cover-ups of political corruption, the state Capitol was rocked again Wednesday by the long-awaited public release of two investigations, both of which revealed a pattern of sexual harassment and intimidation by Lopez against at least four female members on his staff.
The two reports also concluded that the Assembly leaders did little to help the women and paid $103,000 in taxpayer money to try to keep the accusations from reaching the public.
One of the two reports quoted an internal email from an Assembly official discussing “our desire to keep this away from media scrutiny.”
In a statement late Wednesday, Lopez denied the allegations and said he was deprived of his due process rights by the Assembly.
“There is an all-out war against an ailing senior member. One must wonder why the actions in this matter were addressed without due process. Mr. Lopez looks forward to a hearing where all the facts are openly discussed and reviewed," a statement from his office said.
The special prosecutor, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, cleared Lopez of criminal wrongdoing, but he said the women and the public were not served by the way top Assembly officials, including Silver, handled the case when it was first brought to their attention last year. Internal rules for handling such cases, such as referring allegations to an Assembly ethics panel, were ignored, said Donovan, a Republican.
A separate investigation by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, completed in February but released only hours after Donovan’s report, also raised serious questions about how Silver and his team handled the Lopez allegations but stressed that no laws were broken.
Donovan said his probe revealed “that during the mediation and negotiation of a settlement the chief concern of those in the Assembly was mitigating the Assembly’s damages.” That goal “outweighed any interest in investigating or disciplining Assembly Member Lopez or in preventing similar occurrences in the future,” he said.
While Silver and his team last year were quietly trying to resolve complaints against Lopez, the assemblyman was still harassing at least one additional female aide, investigators say. The internal handling of the Lopez affair “encouraged (Lopez) to continue the inappropriate conduct,” Donovan said.
Assembly sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the women made complaints to Assembly officials about Lopez but that the women’s lawyer then told Assembly officials that they could not speak directly to the alleged victims.
Donovan called the secret $103,000 settlement paid to two victims a mechanism to shield the Assembly from embarrassing revelations involving Lopez, one of its most powerful members. He has served in the chamber since 1984 and rose to become Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman before his downfall last year.
Donovan said Lopez, not the two women who received the payments, requested that the settlements be kept secret.
Silver, who last year said he made a mistake when he approved the secret settlement instead of sending the matter to a legislative ethics committee for investigation, found himself on Wednesday beating back demands by Edward Cox, the state Republican Party chairman, to resign over his handling of the affair.
Michael Whyland, a Silver spokesman, said the longtime Assembly leader believed he undertook a “good-faith effort” to protect the interests of the female victims, and he noted that the two reports said no laws were broken in the handling of the Lopez controversy.
“The speaker is deeply committed to ensuring that all our employees are treated with respect and dignity,” Whyland said, noting that Silver repeated his call for Lopez to resign his seat. Silver last year stripped Lopez of his Assembly leadership posts.
Whether the full Assembly might move to oust, fine or censure Lopez remains a possibility, though his fate as a lawmaker will depend in large part on the work still to be done by a joint Senate and Assembly ethics panel. Lopez is running for a New York City Council seat this year.
The 72-page state ethics report, which accused Lopez of violating three state laws, said he demanded women on his staff spend time with him outside the office, gave big raises to women who put up with his inappropriate advances and engaged in “attempted and forced intimate contact.”
He became angry with one woman who refused his request to wear her blouse without a bra underneath and told another to “dress sexy” like a 14-year-old intern assigned to his office, the report said.
Staffers who resisted were threatened with job loss and public berating by the lawmaker, the report said.
In his report, Donovan also criticized Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on the secret settlement. Neither “raised any objection to inclusion of such a confidentiality clause,” he said.
The ethics report said DiNapoli had no personal knowledge of the payments, and DiNapoli said Wednesday new transparency orders have been directed to his staff in future legal settlement cases.
Donovan said Schneiderman’s office should have been more directly involved. If it had, the attorney general “could have advised against inclusion of the confidentiality clause as being contrary to public policy,” Donovan reported, adding that Schneiderman should not act just as a litigator but as a “true counselor at law.”
Damien LaVera, a Schneiderman spokesman, said both investigations made clear that the attorney general was not asked to serve as counsel to the Assembly or approve the settlement. Agency lawyers provided “a limited response to an informal inquiry as well as a model settlement that did not include a confidentiality clause,” he said.
The accounts in the ethics report portrayed Lopez as an intimidating boss who regularly took advantage of young female staff members. He regularly asked women to dinner and, in some cases, to join him in a hotel room and asked them to wear high heels and short skirts.
In one case, the report alleged Lopez gave a woman $50 and told her to buy a low-cut blouse. When she returned the money the next day, he tossed the bills in her face and told her never to “disrespect” him again.In another case, a woman said Lopez asked her why she didn’t wear miniskirts more often.