More questions in NY Assembly sex harass case

Wednesday May 22, 2013

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- A jarring investigation of a sexual harassment scandal in the Assembly was criticized Tuesday for appearing to stop at an already disgraced rank-and-file member, rather than powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver who had brokered a secret settlement with the accusers.

The attorneys for Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s first two accusers -- who received a secret $103,000 settlement with Silver’s approval -- asked for comprehensive investigation.

"A proper and close examination of the past will help us truly understand where the problem lies," said attorneys Gloria Allred, Nathan Goldberg and Mariann Wang.

Silver sought to put the scandal and questions of about his continued role as leader behind him at a routine press conference on proposed legislation Tuesday, but it had a rough ending when he appeared to change part of his story of his role in the scandal.

At issue is the report by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics released last week.

JCOPE investigated the claims against Lopez and the settlement that ended the first of two sets of claims in 2012. It found a "substantial basis" of evidence that Lopez violated Public Officer’s Law by his touching, intimidating and coercing women staffers, but no basis for a charge against Silver, who has admitted that the settlement was wrong and won’t be repeated.

State Republican Chairman Ed Cox called for a closer examination of Silver’s handling of the allegations against the Brooklyn Democrat.

On Monday, Silver had told reporters he was never a target of JCOPE and never received a letter saying he was being investigated, as required by JCOPE’s rules. But Tuesday Silver said JCOPE investigated him for any ethical violations and found none.

"I don’t understand how anybody can conclude that there was no determination," Silver said.

Silver’s spokesman, Michael Whyland, later said both comments were consistent and correct.

In an interview, Whyland said JCOPE never told Silver he was a target, but that Silver considers his 10 hours of testimony and thousands of pages of document that he turned over was the equivalent of being fully investigated.

"There’s no reason to say he wasn’t investigated," Whyland said moments after Silver said JCOPE investigated him. "We cooperated fully."

Although JCOPE investigators appear to have investigated Silver’s role, they may not have been authorized to make any charges against Silver. JCOPE spokesman John Milgrim wouldn’t say if JCOPE investigators were authorized to take such action.

"The Joint Commission’s unanimous report reflects a comprehensive and public accounting of the facts behind both the complaints made against Vito Lopez and the Assembly’s handling of those complaints," said JCOPE Executive Director Ellen Biben. "The report speaks for itself."

Susan Lerner of Common Cause, a good-government group, said JCOPE "chose not to go in that direction."

Common Cause and other good-government groups lodged a formal request months ago that JCOPE investigate not just Lopez, but all Assembly leaders and staff.

It’s an ongoing concern that we have, that JCOPE is not a fully independent oversight body," Lerner said.

Dick Dadey of Citizens Union said the apparently narrow focus of JCOPE on Lopez’s actions appears to be a result of the complex voting process created in the law by Cuomo, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, and Silver. Appointees of legislative leaders and the governor can block an investigation, or limit its targets, in closed-door sessions.

Silver said Monday he never contacted his appointees to JCOPE about their vote and JCOPE doesn’t disclose its votes.

Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb on Tuesday announced legislation to replace JCOPE with a Commission on Official Conduct made up of five appointments from Court of Appeals judges.


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