Silver welcomes probe into Lopez settlement

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spoke to Newsday in

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spoke to Newsday in his office in the Capitol Building in Albany. (Jan. 14, 2012) (Credit: Ted Phillips)

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ALBANY -- Pressure continued to mount yesterday on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver over a secret $103,000 payment to settle sexual harassment allegations against a powerful Brooklyn Democrat, as critics filed a complaint with the state ethics commission alleging a cover-up.

Common Cause and the National Organization for Women filed the complaint, asking the commission to not only delve into sexual harassment allegations against Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) but also Silver's approval of the settlement payment. The groups have also called for Lopez, 71, to resign.

"Just as disturbing is Speaker Silver's cover-up of Lopez's earlier transgressions, which demonstrate an ongoing acceptance and tolerance for sexual harassment," the groups said in a statement.

Silver, (D-Manhattan) who has acknowledged mishandling the case in regards to transparency, said he'd welcome an inquiry by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics because it would "allow all of the facts to come out." He added that the settlement was "both legal and ethical and made out of deference to the wishes of the complainants."

Meanwhile, some Assembly Democrats called the entire incident "embarrassing" and "perplexing," but said it shouldn't endanger Silver as speaker, a post he's held since 1994. Some top Democrats, as well as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, expressed support for Silver, including his admission that he had made a mistake.

The case centers on sexual harassment charges against Lopez. Last week, Silver announced that the Assembly Ethics Committee determined Lopez violated the chamber's rules against harassment by trying to force contact with younger, female staffers. Silver added that, following a committee recommendation, he would strip Lopez of his post as housing committee chairman and reduce his staff to that of a freshman legislator.

Lopez has denied the allegations. He resigned as Kings County Democratic chairman, but said he wouldn't relinquish his Assembly office.

Since then, Silver's office acknowledged that there was a previous complaint against Lopez, which was handled through mediation, and that Silver approved the settlement payment.

Tuesday, Silver said that decision was "the wrong one from the perspective of transparency" and future cases should go to the Assembly Ethics Committee.

Wednesday, Silver said he has directed his counsel to ask participants for a release from any confidentiality clauses in regard to any previous legal settlements with the Assembly.

Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) called the allegations against Lopez "a true embarrassment." Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) called it "shocking" and an "attack on the institution." But like other Democrats, they said that Silver's admission was welcomed and that the incident shouldn't affect his standing. "I think the speaker's acknowledgment of the mistakes that were made is something that I respect and that members respect," Lavine said.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) called for a wider investigation that also asked what role the offices of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, both Democrats, had in approving the settlement payment. Mark Johnson, a DiNapoli spokesman, said "the comptroller's office was not a party to the negotiations."

Schneiderman's office didn't return a call to comment.

With Ted Phillips

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