ALBANY – The Brooklyn Democratic assemblyman found by a state ethics agency to have engaged in a disturbing pattern of sexually harassing female staff members should resign or be expelled, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday.
Late Thursday night, Silver released a statement saying he is beginning the formal process of trying to remove Lopez from the Assembly. Silver “intends to draft and introduce a resolution” today, according to the statement, “to be voted on Monday, to ask the Ethics & Guidance Committee to consider the full [Joint Commission on Professional Ethics] report and to recommend appropriate sanctions including expulsion” of Lopez.
The governor, in his criticisms of Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, stopped short of joining others who are calling for action against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who a special prosecutor said oversaw an internal process of the Lopez matter that was concerned first about damage control and less about the female employees of the Assembly.
“As the executive, it’s not my place to say who the speaker should be,” Cuomo told reporters. But he said the way the Assembly handled the Lopez scandal – including a secret, $103,000 taxpayer-funded settlement to two women and not turning the matter immediately over to the Ethics Committee to investigate – was wrong. Asked if he had specific criticisms of Silver, Cuomo said, “The way the Assembly handled it, yes.” The governor said he did not know if the poor handling of the matter was by Silver or others in the Assembly.
The Staten Island district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., said Wednesday he would not bring criminal charges against Lopez. But he was sharply critical of how Silver handled the episode, saying internal rules for such allegations were not followed. Silver has said that he made mistakes by approving a secret settlement and that no such deals will be allowed in the future.
As for Lopez, Cuomo said, “I believe he should resign. If he doesn’t resign, the body should expel him. I think they should make a statement that says we do not tolerate this in our house.” He called it a “disturbing episode” but cautioned that there are “magnitudes of differences” between what Lopez allegedly did to four of his female employees and what Silver may have done in the case.
The sole female member of the Assembly’s Democratic conference from the Buffalo area said she is unhappy with Silver’s resolution of the Lopez case. “I’m disappointed in the way he handled it, but I respect the fact that he acknowledged his mistake,” Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said of Silver’s statement last year that the Lopez matter was mishandled. With six weeks to go in the legislative session, she said, it is unlikely that a new leadership vote would be successful. “Whether or not something happens before we start a new session, I don’t know, and I think it will be more of a decision of Shelly than the conference electing new leadership,” she said.
Asked why, she said, “I think most of the people have accepted his apologies for handling the situation in the wrong way.”
New York Common Cause called on the Assembly to hold a leadership vote in public to decide whether Silver, the Assembly leader for two decades, should continue. Susan Lerner, the group’s executive director, said statements and reports issued Wednesday by the special prosecutor and a state ethics agency made clear that the Assembly’s Democratic leadership “took every measure possible to avoid engaging in a proper investigation with its own sexual-harassment procedures in order to protect Vito Lopez.”
“There was no confusion, merely a cover-up,” Lerner said, and Silver needs to “provide justification for why he should continue” as speaker.