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Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has apologized for the way he handled a secret $103,000 payment to settle a claim by two female assembly staffers who said they were sexually harassed by Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
The payment came to light after Silver had disclosed that Lopez had been censured by the Assembly Ethics Committee for two more instances of alleged sexual harassment.
But Silver, in a statement, said he was sorry that he had not sought an Ethics Committee review in the first instances of alleged sexual harassment by Lopez. And he said he regrets not making the circumstances surrounding the payment public when it was issued in June of this year.
The apology came just two hours after Governor Andrew Cuomo called on the state’s ethics commission to investigate.
Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, says her group, along with the New York City Chapter of the National Organization for Women, plans to submit a written complaint to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE.
Lerner says it appears the Assembly may have violated its own policies against sexual harassment, which require that any allegations of sexual harassment against an assembly member be sent to the ethics committee.
“The legislature cannot police itself, we’ve learned this over and over and over again,” Lerner says. “Even when they set up procedures to police themselves, they ignore them.”
Lerner says the complaint will ask JCOPE to find out whether there is pattern of disregarding established protocol for sexual harassment cases, and whether there have been other, similar secret payoffs.
Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, agrees that the disclosure of the secret payment, first reported in the New York Times, and Silver’s subsequent apology, raises even more questions: “It’s a classic case of the more you know, the more questions arise.”
Dadey wants to know why the Assembly did not notify JCOPE when it first heard of the allegations against Assemblyman Lopez, at the time of the secret settlement, and he says it’s possible that violations of the state’s public officer’s law occurred: “We believe that harassing employees of the state legislature can constitute violating the public trust.”
Dadey says without more details, though, it’s hard to know. His group is also formally asking JCOPE to conduct a thorough investigation. He says Speaker Silver needs to provide more information about the settlement, too. “You can still protect the identity of the complainant, while also fully revealing to the public how the Assembly handled this case.”
The attorney representing two of the alleged victims issued a harshly worded statement criticizing the Speaker’s apology. Nationally known lawyer Gloria Allred sharply disagrees with the Speaker’s assertion that the case was not referred to the Assembly ethics board because the victims did not want an investigation. Allred says nothing in the settlement precluded the probe.
By day’s end, Silver, in his second statement in less than 24 hours, said he “welcomes” the probe because it would “supersede any confidentiality agreements” and “allow all of the facts to come out.” The Speaker says those facts will show that the secrecy was out of “deference” to the complainants. Silver says he’s also asked the victim’s lawyers to waive prior confidentiality agreements so that more documents surrounding the case can be released to the public.
A spokesman for Silver says there are no other legal settlements besides the payout to the alleged victims of Assemblyman Lopez.