State ethics board case against Lopez moves forward
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ALBANY -- The state ethics commission, which has been weighing a sexual harassment scandal involving Assemb. Vito Lopez, signaled Wednesday that the case against the once-powerful Brooklyn politician is moving forward.
In a terse statement, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics announced it has submitted its findings to two state legislative ethics committees for further action.
Though JCOPE didn't specifically name Lopez, commission members acknowledged last year they were investigating claims that the assemblyman had groped and harassed former employees. Lopez's attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, said he figured the report is about his client.
"I'm assuming that since they called me up and told me they are overnighting something to me. I am assuming it's the same old stuff," Lefcourt said.
Besides Lopez, a Democrat, the scandal also has entangled Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who approved a settlement payment stemming from a lawsuit filed against Lopez. Silver spokesman Michael Whyland said he was "confident" the investigation found no legal violations by the speaker or his staff.
Whyland said Silver has not received a copy of the ethics report, called a "substantial basis investigation report." Anyone subject to an ethics investigation is entitled to such a report.
Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), co-chairman of the Legislative Ethics Commission, declined to comment, citing "the confidential nature of this process." Under law, only Lavine's commission -- not JCOPE -- has authority to sanction state legislators.
At issue are the sexual allegations against Lopez and the secret settlement approved by Silver.
The Assembly agreed to pay $135,000, -- with $103,000 of that in public money -- to two former Lopez staffers and their attorneys to settle the case.
The episode is not only the subject of JCOPE's investigation but a separate criminal probe by a special prosecutor. Silver has acknowledged he mishandled the case by not sending the complaints to the Assembly Ethics Committee.
The ethics commission also has asked for information from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, whose offices approved the payment.
Lopez resigned his post as chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party, but he has resisted calls from Silver and others to resign his Assembly seat. He easily crushed a little-known Republican opponent last November to win re-election.
Whyland said the ethics report should be made public.
"As we have said throughout, we are confident that the commission found no legal or ethical violation by Speaker Silver or his staff and urge the Legislative Ethics Commission to release the report immediately," he said in an email.
With Joan Gralla