ALBANY – A private $103,000 settlement using taxpayers' money to end the latest sexual harassment claim against a state assemblyman is continuing to build pressure on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.
“Given the poor way this has been handled and the public's right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, the [State] Senate and Assembly should reveal if there have been other cases in which secret settlements have been reached with complaints against legislators,” said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a good-government advocate. “Many questions remain unanswered.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday said many sexual harassment settlements have happened before in state government, and he expects there will be more.
Silver spokesman Michael Whyland said there are no other undisclosed settlements. Cuomo’s spokesman said there have been no such settlements in Cuomo’s executive chamber. The State Senate’s Republican majority hasn't commented.
On Friday, veteran Democratic Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez of Brooklyn was censured by the Assembly’s ethics committee based on July accusations, and Silver withdrew Lopez’s committee chairmanship and its stipend.
On Monday, Silver released a June voucher that showed a $103,000 payment in a sex harassment case that a legislative official says was for a different case against Lopez by different women who requested a confidential mediated settlement.
The settlement or elements of it were provided to the state attorney general’s and comptroller’s offices, but officials there say the discussions were on narrow items and the offices had no power to stop or alter the settlement.
How this will affect Silver, 68, a major force in New York politics since 1994, isn’t clear. Wednesday’s New York Daily News front-page headline screams: "Sex Case Coverup."
No one has challenged Silver since he thoroughly squashed a coup attempt in 2000. Even now, members are privately wary of appearing to challenge Silver, while publicly in awe of his negotiating and political skills.
“Speaker Silver survives because the conference supports him and there’s no indication that’s not the case today,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a national political adviser who worked in the Clinton White House. But he called the situation “a mess.”
“It's a mess because of the time we live in more than anything else,” Sheinkopf said.
He noted that sexual harassment was accepted by most in politics and society for decades, but tolerance has dwindled dramatically. Silver strengthened the sexual harassment policy and procedure after a string of cases including the 2003 conviction of his counsel for sexual misconduct. It worked Friday in censuring Lopez.
The policy, written in 1984 and signed by Silver, states: “A complaint of sexual harassment and/or retaliation against a member of the Assembly shall be referred to the Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance for investigation.” But Silver said Tuesday that the victims in the June settlement sought a “confidential mediation and financial settlement,” which Silver said complies with an opinion by his counsel and with law.
“But that's not enough anymore,” Sheinkopf said, “because the throng wants blood.”
Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC – the National Organization for Women, New York City chapter – said Wednesday that Lopez, who denies any instances of sexual harassment, is “entirely unfit to serve.”
“Just as disturbing is Speaker Silver’s cover-up of Lopez's earlier transgressions, which demonstrate an ongoing acceptance and tolerance for sexual harassment,” she said. “It is absolutely unacceptable.”
She and Common Cause- New York are asking the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a bipartisan panel staffed with members of the State Senate and Assembly – to investigate.
On Wednesday, Silver said he welcomes the investigation because it will supersede the confidentiality agreement to show the victims sought the confidential mediation and his process was legal and ethical.
He also is writing attorneys “in any previous settlement asking for a release from any confidentiality clauses that may exist.”
Silver made a rare admission in New York politics on Tuesday, saying he made a mistake in settling the case directly outside the Assembly ethics committee. He said he did so only at the insistence of the victims to better protect their privacy and careers.
Now Silver said he won't act outside the committee anymore because it conflicts with the transparency required of government.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said the Assembly ethics committee was never advised of the settlement, even as it considered the accusations against Lopez made in July.