Sheldon Silver, Vito Lopez sued in harassment scandal
ALBANY -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Assemb. Vito Lopez were sued Thursday by two of Lopez's alleged sexual-harassment victims, charging that the two contributed to an atmosphere where young female staffers were harassed "with impunity."
Victoria Burhans, 27, and Chloe Rivera, 25, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging the once-influential Lopez routinely engaged in "inappropriate and unwelcome physical contact" and that the powerful Assembly speaker was more focused on keeping the women's complaints quiet than investigating. A separate lawsuit was filed in a State Supreme Court against the Assembly; it's possible the two claims could later be consolidated.
The lawsuits outline sordid details about Lopez, 72, that had become public through two other investigations -- that he allegedly groped and harassed the staffers, made sexual overtures and threatened to fire them if they refused. But it also provided new claims -- for example, the assemblyman allegedly told Burhans to sleep with a Cuomo administration official so he could get a certain bill passed. She declined.
The claims focus just as much on Silver, whom the women blame for shielding Lopez. They noted that Silver agreed to quietly settle previous sexual-harassment claims by their predecessors against Lopez, allowing the assemblyman to continue his "deplorable conduct" toward young staffers.
"Lopez would not have been able to abuse plaintiffs without the assistance of the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver," the lawsuit states. "Silver and his staff orchestrated a campaign of false public statements in order to deflect their egregious failure to have taken even the most basic steps to protect Lopez's staffers from Lopez's sexual harassment and abuse."
Burhans and Rivera are asking for back pay, compensatory and punitive damages.
Silver spokesman Michael Whyland said, "We will review the complaint when we receive it." A lawyer for Lopez didn't immediately return messages seeking comment.
The Lopez scandal broke last summer when an Assembly ethics panel censured him, announcing it determined that he had sexually harassed two employees. Days later, Silver disclosed that two previous claims against Lopez had been settled in a confidential agreement that included $103,000 in public funds and $32,000 from Lopez.
A subsequent civil inquiry determined Lopez's conduct violated the public officers law. When the Assembly announced it would consider expulsion, Lopez resigned, effective May 20.
A separate criminal prosecutor, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, determined no "chargeable crime" occurred, but criticized Silver for his handling of the matter, which Donovan said was more about the "desire to shield the Assembly" than to protect victims.
Lopez has maintained that Donovan's determination clears him and that he resigned only because he wants to run for New York City Council.
Earlier this week, the state Legislative Ethics Commission indicated it would seek more than $100,000 in fines against Lopez, sources said.
Silver has admitted to committing a "glaring" error and proposed policy changes in the wake of the scandal.