In the Vito Lopez case, staying nervous
In the Dos Equis beer commercial, "the most interesting man in the world" signs off with the message: "Stay thirsty, my friends."
In state government, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the most interesting man in Albany, sends fellow elected officials the message: "Stay nervous, my friends."
A tension-laced meeting took place at the offices of the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics Monday, prompted by the now-famous sex harassment charges against Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn).
This probe has become a flash point for the panel, composed of legislative and gubernatorial appointees. Last Friday, Cuomo declared that if the commission fell short of a "thorough" inquiry of the Lopez charges -- and how some of them resulted in out-of-court settlements worked out by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) -- the governor could start his own probe under the state's rarely used Moreland Act.
At Monday's hastily called commission meeting, two of Silver's appointees reacted sharply to Cuomo's message, calling it coercive and a challenge to the panel's integrity.
As serious subjects go in Albany, sexual harassment is more than just nerve-wracking. In 2003, a former top Silver aide pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct involving a young staffer. In 2006, a Democratic assemblyman from Rockland County quit after being accused of making unwanted advances toward a male intern. In 2010, Gov. David A. Paterson came under fire for his handling of a close aide's alleged violence toward a former girlfriend.
Against that backdrop, Cuomo continues to offer his own background narrative on the Lopez mess. He not only reinforced his Moreland prospect as a "plan B," he gave other players reason to stay nervous -- at least in terms of what professional spin-meisters like to call the "optics" of the case.
Cuomo took issue with descriptions of the Lopez settlements as "secret." He said "it was not a deal done outside the checks and balances of government" -- since the state comptroller "implemented" it and the attorney general "reviewed" it.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who happened to be Democratic ticket-mates of Cuomo in 2010, seek to distance themselves from the controversial settlements. DiNapoli said his office's approval was "technical."
Schneiderman's allies raised interesting points in response regarding that office's informal role. One is that while the attorney general represents state agencies and the legislature when sued, these settlement deals preceded any litigation. For another, the AG's lawyer contacted by the Assembly sent back a draft settlement template without a confidentiality clause that Silver now concedes should not have been included.
Those invested in the commission's success, perhaps the governor, have cause to be a little nervous, too, when it comes to "optics." Lawyer Ravi Batra -- a man with close ties to Brooklyn Democrats, appointed by Senate minority conference leader John Sampson of the borough -- quit with a characteristically ornate, rambling, eight-page, single-spaced letter that urges no confidence in the commission.
Nobody seems to know yet if a further public hit might lie ahead for Silver, who last week called for Lopez to quit his elected post amid a criminal review.
For now, Lopez, the former Kings County Democratic chairman, still seems to have the most to be nervous about.