Imagine this: A government leader gets word that someone in his organization is accused of grossly harassing women in his office and that the incident may become public. The leader secretly arranges to compensate the victims using taxpayer dollars and, when the clandestine arrangement becomes known, he says the secrecy was meant to protect the victims’ privacy.
Later, an investigator reports that the women, in fact, never asked for confidentiality and that the $103,000 in payments were clearly meant to hush up a scandal that could prove embarrassing and, further, that the leader showed little interest in disciplining the offending individual or in protecting other women from that person’s unwanted and shocking advances.
Question: Did the leader violate a standard of conduct that requires his resignation? Answer: Yes. Should it matter that the leader is the speaker of the New York State Assembly? No, it should not. Sheldon Silver should go.
The report issued this week – actually, there were two of them – criticized Silver’s handling of the mess created by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who told women staff members to wear sexy clothing to the office, asked them to stay with him in hotel rooms, made regular comments about their bodies and even groped them. Those who resisted could be threatened with job loss and public berating.
According to special prosecutor Daniel Donovan, when the women complained about Lopez to the Assembly leadership, including Silver, the response was more about protecting the Assembly and one of its senior members – the 71-year-old Lopez was also chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party – rather than to deal with the reprehensible conduct the women described.
Indeed, Donovan – a Republican who is also the Staten Island district attorney – noted that the goal of limiting damage to the Assembly “outweighed any interest in investigating or disciplining Assembly Member Lopez or in preventing similar occurrences in the future.”
What is more, he said, Lopez was still harassing at least one other female aide while Silver and his team were maneuvering to resolve the issue without the public knowing about it. The internal handling of the affair encouraged Lopez “to continue the inappropriate conduct,” Donovan said.
Thus, not only did Silver and his leaders move to protect Lopez, they left other women at risk and purposely misled the public on the reasons for secretly picking taxpayers’ pockets. It’s wrong every way you look at it.
While both Donovan’s report and one from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics concluded that no laws were broken, it is not unreasonable to believe that Silver’s approach to this matter describes a mindset that leads others in the Legislature to believe that their positions entitle them to commit whatever abuses their hearts desire – or, at least, that their leadership will turn a blind eye to it.
Corruption in Albany is a perpetual motion machine.
Albany needs to change and, plainly, that requires a change at the top. It may be difficult for another Assembly Speaker to reform a miserable political culture that values dishonesty, but it is clear that Silver cannot. He should step aside.