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No sex harassment charges for Vito Lopez

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

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

ALBANY -- A special prosecutor will not bring sexual harassment charges against once-powerful Assemb. Vito Lopez, but he sharply criticized the Assembly Speaker for approving a confidential payment to settle complaints filed by women who worked for Lopez.

A separate civil investigation, released Wednesday, said there was a "substantial basis to conclude" that Lopez (D-Brooklyn) violated the state Public Officers Law. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics forwarded its findings to a legislative panel that would have authority to sanction the longtime assemblyman.

After a nine-month investigation, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the allegations that Lopez groped and harassed former female staffers were "alarming" but not criminal.

"Here it should be noted that not every instance of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature rises to the level of a crime under the penal law of New York," Donovan said Wednesday in a statement.

Donovan also concluded there was nothing criminally wrong with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) approving spending $103,000 to settle two complaints against Lopez, 71. But he said a confidentiality agreement was more about the "desire to shield the Assembly" than to protect victims.

"Resolving the complaints in this secretive manner . . . apparently encouraged . . . [Lopez] to continue the inappropriate conduct," Donovan said.

Silver aide Michael Whyland said Silver's actions "represented a good-faith belief that the Assembly was acting in the interests of the victims." Whyland also noted that Silver acknowledged last summer he erred in not sending the complaints directly to the Legislative Ethics Commission per Assembly policy.

State Republican chairman Ed Cox called on Silver to resign, saying "once again, Speaker Silver has lowered the bar" for ethical behavior.

A defiant Lopez, who has refused calls to resign, claimed there was "an all-out war" against him. In a statement, he said he was denied due process -- although he declined an opportunity to testify before the ethics panel and instead submitted a 23-page rebuttal. He said there was a "political agenda to the one-sided nature of the findings."

The scandal broke last summer when a state ethics panel censured him, announcing that it determined he sexually harassed two employees. Days later, Silver disclosed that two previous claims against Lopez had been settled in a confidential agreement that included $103,000 in public funds and $32,000 from Lopez. The claims by the four women sparked the civil and criminal investigations.

The state ethics commission report was filled with sordid allegations of Lopez's behavior toward four young female staffers.

According to the report, Lopez told them to wear low-cut dresses and high heels, but no bra. He pressured them to kiss him on the cheek, massage his hands, go on trips and stay in hotel rooms with him overnight. Refuse and they faced firing.

One employee said she "fought" him off once. Another said she contracted pink eye after having to administer Lopez eye drops. Some secretly recorded Lopez's conversations with them.

The Joint Commission can't sanction lawmakers, so it forwarded the report to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which can. Commission co-chairman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) declined to comment Wednesday.

Gloria Allred, the lawyer for the two women who received the confidential payments, issued a statement saying the reports made clear it was the Assembly that wanted secrecy, not the women.

Two other women, Victoria Burhans and Chloe Rivera, issued a statement saying they came forward "to ensure that no other women would be forced to endure what we went through."

An employment-law expert said most claims about sexual harassment in the workplace are pursued in civil court, not criminal. "It's a better forum. It's set up for these cases. There are compensation remedies," said Al Feliu of Manhattan. "A criminal proceeding doesn't provide that kind of result."

With William Murphy

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