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Lopez-Silver charges spotlight harassment policies

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

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

ALBANY -- The controversial settlement of sexual harassment allegations against Assemb. Vito Lopez has turned the spotlight back to a 2003 rape case against a former top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the guidelines enacted in its aftermath to protect victims.

In that case, J. Michael Boxley, then-counsel to Silver, was accused of raping a 22-year-old Assembly intern. Boxley pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and was sentenced to probation and a $1,000 fine. Later, the Assembly reached a $500,000 settlement with the victim.

Boxley, who according to the stipulation was required to pay $7,500 to the victim, didn't respond to a call to his Albany home. The victim, who was not named, also wasn't available for comment.

Since 2003, Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Silver (D-Manhattan), said the Assembly has been proactive in training to prevent sexual harassment.

"The Assembly is committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for all its employees," Whyland said in a statement.

But critics question whether the guidelines are being followed. "How do I know if they are doing it?" asked Paul DerOhannesian, the lawyer for the victim in the Boxley case. "I don't know if there's any internal check of that."

Among the guidelines enacted since 2003 is a requirement for the Assembly to keep a record of written complaints for seven years. In the Boxley case, DerOhannesian said, there was a "striking" lack of documentation, including some records of a 2001 case in which Boxley was accused of sexual assault.

A stipulation enacted as part of the settlement also creates clear guidelines for who can investigate a complaint, and says that meetings with victims and their accusers to mediate settlements can occur only if both sides agree to them.

Whyland said there is now mandatory sexual harassment training conducted by professional trainers every year -- once every two years in Albany for members (including May 2011), and staff training every year, including in regional offices. Assembly lawyers attend the training to "underscore policy," he said. The policy appears on the Assembly intranet, and in an employee information guide.

Whyland also pointed to a 2004 women's task force convened by Silver that created an "intake committee" to encourage complainants to come forward. It also clarified the definition of "workplace" to include work meetings at receptions, restaurants, travel and events.

An updated policy was put in place to prohibit retaliation, not only for sexual harassment and retaliation reporting, but also for providing information or testimony in cases. Findings in cases are required to be made in 90 days instead of 180.

Still, in a news briefing in Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that while state government was better prepared to deal with complaints like those against Lopez, the complaints themselves aren't apt to stop.

"You will always find situations where people do things wrong, where people in power make mistakes," he said. " . . . There will be, I'm sad to say, additional acts in the future where people are accused of sexual harassment."

In 2011, Silver modified the chamber's sexual harassment policy to require that any complaint against an Assembly member go directly to the bipartisan Assembly Ethics Committee.

But Silver didn't follow that policy when he agreed to a confidential payment -- using taxpayers' money -- to settle two complaints against Lopez.

According to the now-public settlement agreement, Silver agreed to a $135,000 payment -- $103,000 in public money -- to end the case.

Silver has acknowledged that he erred in not sending those complaints to the ethics committee and has said that in the future, such settlements should be made public while protecting the identity of the employee who made the complaint.

Silver did refer two subsequent cases involving Lopez, the former Brooklyn Democratic chairman, to the panel. In those cases, the committee determined that Lopez had violated the chamber's sexual harassment policies. Silver censured Lopez, reduced his staff and removed him from a lucrative committee chairmanship. Lopez has denied any wrongdoing.

The cases led to a civil probe by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics and a criminal investigation by a special prosecutor.

Kevin Mintzer, a Manhattan attorney for the two women whose sexual harassment complaints led the Assembly Ethics Committee's ruling on Lopez, questioned whether the Assembly was following its own rules. "Policies cannot make a difference if they are not implemented by those in charge," he said.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women-New York City, added, "These are comprehensive policies, which would be very useful if implemented. That's the problem. What we've seen in recent weeks is the failure to execute these policies."

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