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Ethics panel investigating Vito Lopez scandal lacks 'trust,' ex-member says

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver speaks to members of

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver speaks to members of the press in Charlotte, N.C., before the Democratic National Convention. (Sept. 3, 2012) Credit: Chris Ware

ALBANY - Ravi Batra, who quit the state ethics commission amid controversy over its handling of the Vito Lopez scandal, said Saturday no one trusts the panel because of questions of whether it's sufficiently independent.

Batra, a Brooklyn lawyer, said that at times, his service on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics created last year "made me feel I was in the midst of something sinister."

Batra said he couldn't provide details because he still honored the panel's confidentiality vow, but said his remarks were based on "what I've seen and witnessed."

Batra resigned Friday, hours after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put pressure on the commission to expand its investigation.

Batra's latest comments came two days after news reports that the commission would limit its inquiry into several sexual harassment allegations against Assemblyman Lopez (D-Brooklyn) and would not investigate how Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) handled the matter. Silver approved paying $103,000 in public funds to settle claims by two former Lopez staffers.

Late Friday, a Cuomo spokesman said that if the commission didn't investigate all elements of the scandal, Cuomo would impanel a special commission to do so, under broad powers granted to New York governors by the 105-year-old Moreland Act.

"Whatever independence we had was gone," said Batra, who has called for a federal probe of the panel. "I will not serve on bent knee."

"Without independence, its judgment is political," he added. "Without independence, nobody trusts the outcome."

The ethics commission has now hastily scheduled a meeting for Monday. It is expected to consider widening the probe, according to a source, though commission officials would not comment.

Commission spokesman John Milgrim declined to respond to Batra's criticism.

Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi also declined to comment.

A Silver spokesman, Michael Whyland, reiterated the speaker's desire for a "full investigation, saying it "will show that all of the Assembly's actions were legal and taken in good faith to protect the victims."

Under pressure from Cuomo, lawmakers created the commission last year, giving a state ethics panel jurisdiction over the State Legislature for the first time. Cuomo appointed six members, while legislative Democrats and Republicans appointed four each.

Batra has previously gone public with his anger over a commission decision that effectively allowed the Committee to Save New York, a deep-pocketed Cuomo ally, to avoid disclosing its donors and expenditures in detail.

With Robert Brodsky

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