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Long IslandPolitics

State pays $5.2M in 15 sex harassment suits

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

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

ALBANY -- The state paid at least $5.2 million in taxpayer money to settle 15 sexual harassment lawsuits from 2008 to 2010, according to documents released yesterday.

The disclosure comes amid accusations that Assemb. Vito Lopez sexually harassed a total of four female employees in his office.

From 2008 to 2010, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo served as attorney general, the state signed off on the settlements, according to documents released by the state attorney general's office under a Freedom of Information Law request. Some of the lawsuits began before Cuomo became attorney general.

The largest payment of $1.8 million ended a lawsuit brought by a female cook at a state prison in western New York. Five other cases involved state prisons. None involved an elected official.

Other agreements included $280,000 to a Binghamton University staffer amid the school's highly publicized basketball recruiting scandal and $345,000 to two professors at the City University of New York.

Unlike the Lopez settlement, none of the settlements were confidential, said an aide to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. But like the Lopez case, they involve sexual harassment claims in which taxpayers wound up footing the bill.

Lopez (D-Brooklyn) was censured last month after two female former staffers accused him of trying to force contact. Subsequently, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) disclosed that two other women had previously made similar charges and that he approved a confidential $135,000 settlement -- $103,000 of it taxpayers' money -- to end the case. Silver since has said he mishandled the case and should have sent it to an ethics committee hearing.

The tumult has sparked a civil inquiry by the state's ethics panel, and a criminal probe by a special prosecutor.

Some Republicans and the National Organization for Women have blasted Silver for agreeing to the confidential settlement. Cuomo, Silver and numerous other public officials have called on Lopez to resign, but the lawmaker has refused.

The governor also has disparaged the handling of the agreement, criticizing Schneiderman and state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, whose offices consulted with Silver on legal language in the agreement.

The $1.8 million payment stemmed from a claim filed in 2000 by Lisa Borrello, a former cook at the Lakeview Shock Incarceration Facility in Chautauqua County. She alleged that her supervisor systematically barred women from advancing to head cook positions. When an arbitrator ordered the supervisor to promote her, she charged that he harassed her over a period of years.

The case was settled in 2009. Borrello received $674,000, with the remainder covering attorneys' fees.

Cuomo officials didn't immediately comment Thursday.

Recently, Cuomo said the state was better prepared than in the past to deal with complaints like those against Lopez, though the complaints themselves aren't apt to stop.

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

With Mark Harrington


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