Sheldon Silver to push Assembly to expel Vito Lopez

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

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ALBANY -- The leader of the State Assembly said late Thursday he would introduce a resolution calling for the chamber to expel Assemb. Vito Lopez, following the release of two reports that determined Lopez routinely groped and harassed young female staffers.

The full chamber will probably consider it Monday, said a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). If the resolution is approved, the Assembly would then send the recommendation to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has the power to sanction lawmakers. Under this scenario, Lopez could be voted out of the chamber next week.

The late action came after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others called for Lopez to resign or be expelled. As the fallout from the Lopez reports began, a common theme emerged among elected leaders and some advocacy groups: Lopez has to go, but Silver does not.

While Silver (D-Manhattan) has admitted mishandling sexual harassment complaints against Lopez, the ire Thursday was focused on Lopez (D-Brooklyn). "We're not talking about people. We're talking about a single person," Cuomo said, capturing the tone of the scandal's immediate aftermath.

From the governor to the leader of the New York chapter of National Organization for Women to a state legislator who once acknowledged being assaulted, many officials called for Lopez to resign or be expelled.

Asked if Silver should resign, Cuomo said: "As the executive, it is not my place to say who the [Assembly] speaker should be."

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The watchdog group Common Cause said the Assembly should hold a new vote to select a leader.

Two reports released Wednesday outlined how Lopez, once one of the Assembly's most powerful members, routinely groped young female staffers and told them to wear low-cut dresses and high heels, but no bra. He pressured them to kiss him on the cheek, massage his hands, go on trips and stay in hotel rooms with him overnight. The staffers told investigators that if they refused, they faced firing.

Special prosecutor Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney, said that although Lopez's behavior was "alarming," no "chargeable crime" occurred.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics forwarded a separate report that concluded that Lopez's conduct violated the New York Public Officers Law and forwarded its findings to the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Cuomo called the details "disgusting . . . The more facts that have come out in this matter, the uglier it has gotten."

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Without mentioning Silver, Cuomo said the case was handled "terribly" and that it "possibly encouraged" Lopez to continue his behavior.

A longtime political consultant said Cuomo's view probably would be a guidepost for other officials. "Everyone acknowledges the Assembly handled it poorly. But I don't think the members are going to blame Silver," said political consultant George Arzt, saying the speaker is highly popular in the Democrat-dominated chamber.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, the special prosecutor in the case, also said that a confidential settlement involving two women was more about protecting the Assembly than the victims. Silver acknowledged last summer that he had mishandled the case and didn't follow an Assembly policy he created that said any sexual harassment claim must be sent to an investigative panel.

Silver approved a settlement that paid two victims a total of $103,000 in public money. Silver said his actions represented a "good faith" effort to protect the victims.

Assemb. Amy Paulin, a legislator who once disclosed during a speech on the Assembly floor that she'd been sexually assaulted as a teenager, said in an interview that the scandal was about Lopez, not Silver.

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"Expulsion [of Lopez] has to be explored," said Paulin (D-Scarsdale), whose disclosure in 2006 garnered a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats as they debated a sexual-assault bill. "But there is no one I spoke to who believes the speaker should step down."

"The speaker has said it was a mistake," said Assemb. Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), adding she supports Silver staying. "What's done is done. An error has been admitted and the process will change."

"I don't really see there's any fallout" for Silver, added Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst).

Sonia Ossorio, leader of New York NOW, said in a radio interview the reports showed that "Silver and his staff wanted to keep it quiet that a predator was working among them." She said Silver and other Assembly leaders should put their political weight behind forcing Lopez out. Asked if Silver should resign, she said: "I don't think he's prepared to do that."Officials said it wasn't immediately clear if the Assembly could expel Lopez if he hadn't been convicted of a crime.

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