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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Vito Lopez probe poses big test for ethics panel

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

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

The politics of who investigates politicians, when and for what becomes more complicated than the cases themselves.

For the first time in New York, appointees of the governor have a direct, immediate role in probing a major scandal in the State Legislature, a separate government branch. For this reason, the recently exposed sexual harassment charges against Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) have implications beyond the question of how Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) settled lawsuits from some of Lopez's accusers.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created with the legislature the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Six of its 14 members, including chairwoman Janet DiFiore, the Westchester district attorney, are Cuomo appointees, and its top staffer, Ellen Biben, comes from the administration. Three members are selected by Silver, three by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and one each by the legislative minority leaders. Member Ravi Batra, picked by Senate Minority Leader John Sampson (D-Brooklyn), has quit, creating one vacancy.

Last week, word came that the commission would look at Lopez and, later, assess the matter of the Silver settlements. Some reports made it sound as if the panel would stop at Lopez, who has denied wrongdoing. That would have looked bad. This campaign season, state Republicans are demanding Silver resign. The Lopez case thus gives New York Republicans, cordial with Cuomo, a high-ranking Democratic target, and a sharp retort to claims of a GOP "war on women."

Cuomo scrambled Friday to head off any impression that Silver, with whom he met last week while at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., was preordained for a free pass or a fatal blow. Cuomo publicly suggested he could empower another commission -- under the rarely used Moreland Act -- if "rumors" were true that a proper probe would be "blocked." Cuomo added that there's "no reason to believe that JCOPE is not acting appropriately and diligently."

Does Cuomo's Moreland statement pose a possibility that any time the governor dislikes an outcome from the commission, he could try again? We might not find out from this case. At a meeting Monday, panel officials are expected to indicate they'll go where all facts lead.

There's also a criminal probe of Lopez. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes was endorsed by Lopez, the former Kings County Democratic chairman. So he sent the case to Daniel Donovan, Staten Island's Republican DA -- who lost the 2010 attorney general race to Eric Schneiderman, whose office had what Schneiderman has called "informal consultations" on the settlements before the Assembly put them into effect.

The greater the number of players, the more complicated it gets.


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