Sheldon Silver still has Assembly's 'strong backing' despite Vito Lopez scandal
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ALBANY -- The investigation into his handling of sexual harassment allegations against Assemb. Vito Lopez presents the strongest threat to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's leadership in more than a decade.
But there is little indication that Assembly members will abandon Silver, who has led the chamber for 18 years, unless the inquiry unveils previously undisclosed damaging details, rank-and-file members and analysts said.
"I don't detect that there is any problem at this point for the Speaker," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), dean of the Suffolk County delegation. "I would not describe his position as weak."
The heart of the issue, Sweeney and others said, is the allegations against Lopez (D-Brooklyn). Last month, the Assembly Ethics Committee censured him after it found he had violated the chamber's rules against sexual harassment by trying to force contact with young, female staffers. Lopez was removed from his post as Housing Committee chairman.
Subsequently, Silver disclosed that he had approved a $135,000 payment -- $103,000 of it in public funds -- regarding previous allegations against Lopez. Silver has said he mishandled that case and should have sent it to the ethics committee. He has said the complainants wanted confidentiality.
The speaker's admission triggered a civil investigation by the newly formed state Joint Commission on Public Ethics and a criminal probe by a special prosecutor. The commission is also looking at the roles of the state attorney general's office and state comptroller's office, which consulted with the Assembly to draft portions of the settlement dealing with financial and legal issues.
"I think we can all agree that it were handled differently," Sweeney said. "But the focus of the unhappiness is Mr. Lopez."
Silver has led the Assembly since 1994, making him the second-longest-tenured speaker in state history, next to Oswald D. Heck of Schenectady, who ran the chamber 22 years. As speaker, Silver is on his fifth governor.
He survived a coup attempt in 2000 by Michael Bragman of Syracuse -- in what has been the only serious attempt at removing Silver. After Bragman initially claimed he had a majority of the then-99 Democrats in the chamber, Silver rallied and trounced his opponent in a leadership vote.
The last time Silver's status was questioned openly was in 2003, when his top counsel was accused of sexually assaulting an Assembly staffer. The counsel pleaded guilty and the Assembly eventually agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the staffer. Silver then implemented new Assembly policies on fraternization.
Since his admission of mishandling the Lopez settlement, numerous New York Democrats have said they still support Silver -- though some believe that could change if the investigations uncover new and damaging material.
"Shelly is fine," said one Democrat who asked to remain anonymous during the ongoing investigations. "You're not going to find anyone saying Shelly is in trouble."
Silver "also said that going forward that he would do things differently and I support him in that decision," Assemb. Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan), who chairs the Assembly Ethics Committee, said just after the scandal broke.
Several people interviewed noted that, even if Silver is weakened, there is no one like Bragman on deck to possibly step up at the moment. One Assembly veteran said that Bragman was "a very popular guy who worked the members for years" and that there's currently no one in that same position.
Even Silver's rival in the chamber, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Rochester-area Republican, said he "doesn't sense a groundswell" for change among rank-and-file Democrats. Kolb said the Lopez scandal is "not a major issue outside the Albany bubble."
"For insiders, right now, it's a frenzy," Kolb said. "But until the dust settles and the investigations take place, only then will we know [whether] it was just bad judgment or something more nefarious. Everybody should take a deep breath and let the process run its course."