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Over the course of three days, an assemblyman has been censured by the chamber’s ethics committee for sexual harassment, and a state senator has been arrested on corruption charges.
The two join the long list of lawmakers who have been indicted, arrested, convicted and jailed in the past several years.
Assemblyman Vito Lopez had already been stripped of his committee post by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for sexually harassing two of his staff members. A statement from Silver described the alleged incidents in graphic terms. What the Speaker did not say when the news was released late on a summer Friday was that Silver had already authorized a $103,000 settlement between the Assembly and a previous alleged victim of Lopez. Lopez denies all charges, but did decide not to seek reelection to his post as Brooklyn Party Chair.
Sue Lerner with the government reform group Common Cause says wants the state’s ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Integrity, or JCOPE, to probe the incidents. “We’re appalled that tax payer money would be spent to protect what seems to be the conduct of a sexual predator,” Lerner said.
Governor Cuomo agrees, and is also urging JCOPE to get involved. “JCOPE should do an investigation of the allegations that have been made,” Cuomo said, “and then let’s have the facts.”
JCOPE spokesman John Milgrim responds that the commission can’t confirm or comment on any possible investigations. Cuomo, who has already called on Lopez to resign, says he finds the by sexual harassment charges “deeply troubling”.
Lopez maintains his innocence, and the governor says if Lopez is telling the truth, then the JCOPE probe would ultimately determine whether Speaker Silver, or Assemblyman Lopez, is right. Cuomo stopped, short though, of criticizing the Assembly Speaker for the previously undisclosed payout to Lopez’s victims back in June, saying he did not have all the information about the circumstances.
The other scandal involves Senator Shirley Huntley, also a Democrat, who lost her committee postings after she was arrested. She’s charged in a scheme that illegally obtained nearly $30,000 in funds from the state budget for a phony not for profit that benefitted her niece. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says the “sham” organization was supposed to provide training for parents of schoolchildren, but existed only on paper.
What’s worse, the AG says, Senator Huntley, when she learned of the probe, attempted a cover up. He says Huntley “personally” led the effort, and created a handwritten template for a false, back dated letter to try to “fool investigators” into believing that the seminars actually occurred.
“In fact, the evidence has shown that no seminars ever took place,” Schneiderman said.
Senator Huntley also says she’s innocent. She will automatically be ousted from the Senate if she’s convicted of the felony charges.
The scandals come as unwelcome news to other state lawmakers who are seeking reelection this fall, and who may be asking Governor Cuomo to agree to a pay raise once the November voting is over.
Cuomo in the past has not ruled out a pay hike for legislators, who have not had a raise since 1999. But the governor, speaking in a teleconference call on Monday, said with the latest scandals dominating news about state government, a pay hike seems less likely now: “I think it makes it harder to communicate that and convince the general public.”
Lerner, with Common Cause, says lawmakers need to adopt higher standards of conduct first, before they get higher pay.