DA: Assemb. Lopez conduct 'alarming,' not criminal

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Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

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

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A special prosecutor announced Wednesday that he won’t file criminal charges against once powerful Assemb. Vito Lopez after investigating charges of sexual harassment.

Separately, a state panel released a civil investigation that Lopez violated the state's Public Officers Law. Now, it will be up to the Legislative Ethics Commission to determine whether to sanction the assemblyman.

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Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the allegations that Lopez (D-Brooklyn) groped and harassed former female staffers didn’t rise to a criminal level.

“Here it should be noted that not every instance of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature rises to the level of a crime under the penal law of New York,” Donovan said in a statement. “Certainly, what we found is alarming. However, based on our investigation, there is no basis upon which to conclude that a chargeable crime was committed.”

Lopez, formerly the head of the Brooklyn Democratic Committee, faced criminal and civil investigations over sexual harassment charges from four women. He’s rebuffed calls from dozens of fellow politicians, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and activists to resign his Assembly seat.

Gerald Lefcourt, Lopez' attorney, called the decision a "welcome end."

"Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan's decision not to seek criminal charges against [Lopez] is a just and welcome end to this sad saga," Lefcourt said in an email. "We were confident there was no case from the inception."

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A legislative ethics commission is expected to release details of the civil investigation later Wednesday.

The Lopez scandal broke last summer when a state ethics panel censured him, determining he sexually harassed two employees. Since then, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) disclosed that previous claims against Lopez had been settled in a confidential agreement that included $103,000 in public funds. Those previous claims part central to the current investigations.

Donovan said the payments didn’t constitute criminal conduct — although he said the confidentiality clause was meant to protect the Assembly, not the victims.

“I concluded that the manner in which the settlement was reached and the payment was made did not implicate any criminal conduct,” Donovan said. “The payout by the Assembly followed the normal route by which employment claims are paid, and the contribution Assembly Member Lopez made to the settlement came from his personal funds. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that the manner in which these entities dealt with the allegations fell short of what the public has the right to expect.

"My investigation revealed that during the mediation and negotiation of a settlement, the chief concern of those in the Assembly was mitigating the Assembly’s damages," Donovan continued. "That goal outweighed any interest in investigating or disciplining Assembly Member Lopez or in preventing similar occurrences in the future. The desire to shield the Assembly led to the negotiation of a settlement agreement contingent on a confidentiality provision, one crafted at the request not of the complainants but of Assembly Member Lopez."

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Lopez relinquished his position as the chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party. He was stripped of post as chairman of the Assembly Housing Committee.

 After Donovan announced his decision, state officials released sordid details of a civil investigation of the complaints against Lopez.

  In it, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics determined that Lopez' conduct violated state Public Officers Law. The report said that female staffers testified that Lopez groped them, made sexual comments about their clothes and asked them to wear high heels but no bra. One said she "fought" off Lopez' advances at an Atlantic City hotel - she said he insisted she accompany him alone on the trip.

 JCOPE cannot take action itself but has forwarded the report to the Legislative Ethics Commission which can sanction lawmakers. Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), who is co-chairman of the commission, declined comment Wednesday.

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