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Ethics panel to meet on Lopez sex harassment complaint

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

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

ALBANY -- The state ethics commission Thursday called a special closed-door meeting for next week as controversy continued to swirl over Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's handling of a sexual harassment complaint against Assemb. Vito Lopez.

The announcement came days after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the Joint Commission on Public Ethics should investigate the scandal over allegations by four women that Lopez (D-Brooklyn) sexually harassed them. The commission is led by Cuomo appointees and has subpoena power.

Silver approved a secret payment of $103,000 to settle claims against the influential Lopez; Silver indicated he did so because of the complainants' wish to remain anonymous, but now says that he erred and that the Assembly was changing its policy on such settlements.

A copy of the draft settlement and related emails obtained by Newsday shows the women's attorney initially sought $1.2 million, but settled for $135,000, $32,000 of it from Lopez.

Lopez has been the subject of intense scrutiny since the Assembly ethics committee censured him last week for sexually harassing female staffers and news surfaced that $103,080 of taxpayer money was used to settle earlier harassment claims in June. Lopez maintains his innocence. He has stepped down as Kings County Democratic chairman but insisted he won't resign his Assembly office.

The New York Times reported Thursday that former female employees of Lopez described a hostile work environment that included unwanted sexual advances, crude language and requests to wear short skirts or not to wear bras.

The ethics commission's announcement followed a joint complaint from Common Cause NY and the National Organization for Women-NYC that alleged that Lopez and Silver violated state laws governing the conduct of public officers by not referring the earlier harassment allegations to the Assembly Ethics Committee.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY said she was encouraged by the scheduling of the meeting. "We've been calling for an investigation since the news broke," Lerner said, referring to Lopez's censure. "We believe that they [the commission] are the appropriate entity to thoroughly investigate and get to the bottom of the various assertions and allegations that have been swirling around."

Silver has called the settlement "ethical and legal" and said a confidentiality clause in the agreement was sought by the victims.

But the lawyer for the women blasted Silver Thursday. "That clause has nothing whatsoever to do with the Assembly's obligation to conduct a full, fair and prompt investigation once it becomes aware of allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination," attorney Gloria Allred said in a statement. Meanwhile, Assemb. Steve Katz (R-Putnam County) became the first legislator to call for Silver to resign.

"Speaker Silver is an attorney and was well aware that the payments were -- if not illegal -- highly unethical and a slap to the faces of women and the hardworking voters of New York State," Katz said in news release.

With Yancey Roy

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