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Long IslandPolitics

Ethics commission steps up Vito Lopez probe

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

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

ALBANY -- New York's ethics commission issued four subpoenas to the offices of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Tuesday, a source said, as it stepped up its investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Assemb. Vito Lopez and a related settlement using taxpayers' money.

A spokesman for Silver (D-Manhattan) declined to comment. The commission also issued two subpoenas to the office of state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman confirmed. Staffers for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman were expected to be served, as well, although officials declined to confirm or deny that.

The action came just a day after the Joint Commission on Public Ethics met to discuss the case -- and experienced unprecedented internal criticism from commissioners who questioned whether the panel was sufficiently independent from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Gloria Allred, the attorney for the women who agreed to the settlement, has said she received subpoenas from the ethics panel last week.

Meanwhile, a former commissioner expanded yesterday on his reasons for resigning last week. Ravi Batra said he refused "to engage in public deception that JCOPE was independent and not being used as a political tool."

At issue are several allegations lodged by former female staffers against Lopez (D-Brooklyn), head of the powerful Kings County Democratic Committee. Last month, an internal Assembly committee determined he violated the chamber's sexual harassment policy by trying to force contact with the staffers, and Lopez was stripped of his committee chairmanship.

Subsequently, Silver disclosed that a previous allegation resulted in a $135,000 settlement -- $103,000 in public money. Silver has said he mishandled the matter by not sending it to the Assembly Ethics Committee. The Assembly said it consulted the attorney general's office for legal input on the structure of the settlement and the comptroller's office for financial input about the workers' lost wages and settlement amount.

The disclosures sparked an investigation by JCOPE, an entity Cuomo and lawmakers created in 2011. It has 14 members; six are appointed by the governor, four by Republican legislative leaders and four by Democrats. One position -- Batra's -- is vacant.

Media reports last week said the panel decided to investigate Lopez but not Silver -- which triggered outcries by Republicans and the governor. Cuomo said he'd open his own investigation if JCOPE didn't do a "thorough" inquiry.

Batra and other Democratic-appointed commissioners said that the media reports were inaccurate and that the governor's statement came off as bullying. Some said the panel's integrity and independence were at stake.

Batra, who resigned after the governor's statement, accused Cuomo yesterday of wielding a "sledgehammer to enslave JCOPE to do his bidding."

Cuomo officials declined to comment on Batra's criticisms.

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