ALBANY – Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, looking to keep his job as the State Legislature’s most powerful Democrat, unveiled a series of internal changes designed to prevent what critics have called a cover-up in the way he handled allegations of sexual harassment against a Brooklyn colleague who was forced to resign his seat Monday.
Silver, the powerful Assembly leader since 1994, apologized for his handling of the secret settlement of $103,000 in taxpayer funds to resolve two sexual-harassment cases brought last year by staff members of Vito J. Lopez, who resigned from the Assembly.
“Mistakes were made I deeply regret,” Silver told reporters after a closed-door meeting with Democrats after which the Assembly speaker emerged with his job intact.
While Republicans, outside groups and newspaper editorials have called on Silver to step down, the only Democratic lawmaker to suggest Silver should lose his job was Buffalo Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, who announced Monday that he was quitting the Democratic conference in protest of what he called Silver’s poor handling of the Lopez case.
Critics, including a special prosecutor, have said Silver cut a secret settlement deal more for damage control than for looking out for the interests of the two female victims.
“The speaker was complicit in that cover-up,” Kearns said, adding that he expects to be punished by his legislative proposals being killed and by possibly being assigned smaller office space and fewer staff members. Kearns ran last year on a platform of opposing Silver’s leadership, and he did not vote for Silver with his colleagues in January for another two-year term for Silver as speaker.
Michael Whyland, a Silver spokesman, said Kearns’ move was not surprising, given his previous opposition to Silver. “Two members left the Democratic conference today, Vito Lopez and Mickey Kearns,” Whyland said. “One was a closet harasser, one a closet Republican. Neither one will be missed.”
Silver said that new policy changes will include never having himself or his top staff handle any sexual-harassment complaints against lawmakers or staff members and that an outside, independent investigator will be given the responsibility of looking into any allegations of sexual harassment.
The Assembly will also make it mandatory for any reports made to staff members or lawmakers by another employee to be directed to the independent counsel; sanctions will be imposed if the complaints or information is not turned over for investigation.
The speaker said he is also proposing legislation to ban all confidential legal settlements, such as was done in two of several instances of alleged sexual harassment involving Lopez. The ban would apply to the Legislature and all state agencies and public authorities if state funds are involved in the settlements.
“I accept the criticism and deeply regret” not turning the Lopez matter immediately over to a legislative ethics panel, Silver said. “For that, I am sorry,” he added, saying the mistake in trying to resolve the cases “rests solely with me.”
Silver said he had “no inkling” of the extent of the sexual-harassment allegations against Lopez until a state ethics report was made public last week. Lopez has denied the accusations, which included telling young female staff members to wear sexy outfits to work and moving his hand up one staffer’s dress.
Silver said that he gave no thought to stepping down as speaker and that he will serve as leader for as long as his constituents in Manhattan elect him and Democratic lawmakers want him as leader.
Four female Assembly Republicans, including Jane L. Corwin of Erie County, on Monday called for Silver to resign. They cited not just the Lopez case, but his controversial handling of a sexual-assault complaint 12 years ago by a female staffer against a former counsel to Silver, J. Michael Boxley, who kept his job after the incident. Two years later, a different female staffer accused Boxley of raping her; Boxley pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct.
But Silver, with a few dozen Democrats standing behind him during his news conference Monday, also found support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “People say the speaker should resign. … I don’t,” said Cuomo, who has butted heads with Silver but whose help is needed by Cuomo in the final month of the 2013 legislative session to pass a number of his unresolved policy initiatives.
The mantra from most Assembly Democrats was simple: Silver admitted his mistake and then took action against Lopez, including stripping him last year of his leadership and committee posts, and then last week, after two reports on the case were released by a special prosecutor and a state ethics panel, started an effort to expel him from the Assembly.
Assemblyman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, of Buffalo, the only female Democrat in Western New York’s Assembly delegation, said Silver’s colleagues took notice of his apology and new policy actions. “A lot of people, when they make mistakes, are not going to apologize for it,” she said.
But Kearns said that he was disgusted by the details about Lopez that were released last week and that Silver played a role in making matters worse by secretly settling with Lopez’s accusers – after which Lopez kept on allegedly making inappropriate remarks and groping staff members.
“Someone has to have the courage to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Kearns said in calling on Silver to resign. He urged other lawmakers to join him, but by nightfall, he said, no one had stepped forward.
Kearns won a special election in March 2012 to succeed Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, now Buffalo city comptroller, who also had his battles with Silver. Schroeder had succeeded current Rep. Brian Higgins, who also had fought with Silver during his Assembly term.
Asked about the lineup of current and former lawmakers from that district who have battled with Silver, Peoples-Stokes said, “There’s something about that district. They just don’t like the speaker.”
As for Kearns, she said, “I think he could have already been gone for how effective he’s been.” She said Kearns “barely” participates in Assembly Democratic conference meetings.
The Silver matter made it into local political circles, with Erie County Republican Party Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy holding court outside Democratic Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan’s Buffalo office Monday to criticize area Democrats for not following the lead of Kearns. But Ryan said that while Silver handled the Lopez matter “poorly,” he applauded the steps he took Monday. As for Silver continuing as leader, Ryan said, “While I think people’s faith is shook up, he still enjoys the support of the conference.”
Silver said he has made training on the issue of sexual harassment required for all lawmakers and staff members. However, the two top staffers involved in the Lopez settlement lead those training sessions.
A special prosecutor last week said that the Assembly sexual-harassment policy is adequate but that it was not followed in the Lopez matter.
“That I allowed this system to be bypassed in the first instance, even though I believed I was acting in good faith, was a failure on my part, and now that we know the atrociousness of the misconduct, it only makes the failure more glaring,” Silver said.
“The responsibility for the mistakes that were made in the handling of the original complaints rests solely with me, and it is my responsibility to ensure that those mistakes are never made again.”