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Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Sexual harrassment scandal persists in Albany

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The state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics is scheduled to meet Monday amid a growing legislative sexual harassment scandal. The commission isn't issuing an agenda and won't confirm the scandal has been or will be discussed in the board's closed-door sessions.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, met privately last week to consider its role in a sexual harassment scandal involving Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

The New York Times reported on a leak from JCOPE that the ethics commission had voted not to probe the secret settlement authorized by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But good government groups protested.

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Reported by

Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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There are new developments in an ethics investigation and a criminal probe in the ongoing sexual harassment scandal in the New York State Assembly.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, met privately just days after Governor Andrew Cuomo called for an investigation into a sexual harassment scandal involving Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Lopez was censured by the Assembly for allegedly sexually harassing two female staffers. It was later revealed that Speaker Silver had previously agreed to a secret $103,000 payout to two earlier alleged victims of Lopez.

The New York Times reported on a leak from JCOPE that the ethics commission had voted to limit its probe to just the circumstances surrounding Assemblyman Lopez’s actions, and would not be probing the secret settlement authorized by Silver.

That brought cries of outrage from government reform groups. Sue Lerner of Common Cause says JCOPE “failed” its first big test. “It would appear to be a failure on the part of JCOPE,” said Lerner. “To be an independent ethics oversight body.”

Shortly after the complaints were made, JCOPE Chair Janet DiFiore called for another special ethics commission meeting for Monday. No agenda was listed. Under its rules, JCOPE can’t comment on investigations or even confirm if they are happening.

Governor Cuomo, who has cited the creation of the new ethics commission as one of his proudest achievements, also weighed in. His spokesman Josh Vlasto said he hoped the reports of more limited investigation were just “rumors”, but if true, it would be “unconscionable” for legislative appointees to block the investigation, and said the governor would appoint a special Moreland Act commission to launch its own probe. Lerner, reacting to the governor’s statement, said she’s “glad” to see Cuomo “weigh in”.

Citizen’s Union’s Dick Dadey says the strong words from the governor’s spokesperson and the announcement of an additional JCOPE meeting are encouraging signs: “It’s clear that JCOPE may be rethinking its initial action into this investigation.”

Under the complex rules governing the authorizing of JCOPE investigations, it takes the approval of at least two appointees of Democratic leaders of the legislature for a probe to of any elected Democrat in the legislature to begin. The same rules apply if a Republican were being investigated.

Dadey says Speaker Silver has already said he “welcomes” a probe, and wants the “truth” to come out, so that should free the Speaker’s two appointees to vote yes to expand the investigation. “Silver has given them the cover to act,” said Dadey.

There were also developments in a criminal investigation of the Lopez scandal. A Brooklyn judge permitted an expansion of the probe by special prosecutor Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, to include the circumstances surrounding the secret settlement. The judge says Donovan is free to examine whether the transaction is a violation of the penal law, the election law, or the public officers law. Judge Fern Fisher says Donovan would have the power to prosecute any charges that might arise out of that investigation.

A spokesman for Speaker Silver says Silver “desires a thorough investigation to get all the facts out”. Spokesman Mike Whyland says the Speaker believes “a full investigation will show that all of the Assembly’s actions were legal and taken in good faith to protect the victims.”

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