Judge: Probe secret payment in Lopez case

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) Photo Credit: Bryan Pace, 2001

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ALBANY -- A state judge on Friday authorized the special prosecutor investigating allegations of sexual harassment against Assemb. Vito Lopez to examine whether a secret settlement payment violated criminal and election laws.

The judge's order amended the appointment of Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. to specify that he also investigate whether a $135,000 settlement of two complaints against Lopez violated penal, election and public officers laws.

The order by Judge Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts, also requires Donovan to investigate whether allegations against Lopez in two other sexual harassment complaints amount to violations of the penal law.

The settlement of more than $135,000 included $103,080 of taxpayer money and $32,000 of funds from Lopez (D-Brooklyn). Last month, the Assembly ethics committee censured Lopez in two of the cases, stripping him of his chairmanship of the Housing Committee. Lopez, who has stepped down as Brooklyn Democratic leader, has denied the allegations and rebuffed calls to resign his seat.

Calls to Lopez's office and to his attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, were not returned Friday.

Fisher's order raises the possibility of a Donovan investigation of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) for his role in approving the settlement.

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The New York Times has reported that the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which also is investigating the allegations against Lopez, will not be looking into Silver's role.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday threatened to launch an investigation of the ethics commission if it does not thoroughly probe the scandal.

Spokesman Joshua Vlasto said Cuomo has no reason to believe that the commission was not acting appropriately despite "rumors" to the contrary. But "if such rumors are true, we believe it would be unconscionable for any legislative appointees to JCOPE to block such investigation," Vlasto said. "If they are, the governor will appoint a Moreland Act Commission to conduct an investigation that would include these matters. Either way, the public will know the facts and answers to the questions that have been raised."

Last night, JCOPE commissioner Ravi Batra announced his immediate resignation, saying "recent events have been cascading into a crescendo where I feel compelled to resign over principle." In a statement earlier, Batra had urged Cuomo to appoint an independent prosecutor to "prevent [the commission] from being an unlawful political tool."

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The commission on Friday called a special meeting for Monday but did not post an agenda.

Silver has apologized for how he handled the secret settlement and said future cases would be referred to the Assembly ethics committee. He has dismissed calls by Republicans to resign as speaker.

Spokesman Michael Whyland said Silver "has made it very clear that he desires a thorough investigation to get all the facts out regarding this matter. A full investigation will show that all of the Assembly actions were legal and taken in good faith to protect the victims."

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