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Lopez report details disturbing allegations of sexual harassment

The Legislative Ethics Commission released its report on the sexual harassment allegations against Assemblyman Vito Lopez.  It’s conclusions have New York City’s National Organization for Women calling for a vote of no confidence against the still-serving assemblyman, and the Republicans calling for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to resign.

The report, which contains many disturbing allegations against Lopez, had been kept secret while the Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan said he was conducting a criminal investigation. Now the district attorney has said there is not enough evidence to prosecute, though he says what he found was “alarming.” The Legislative Ethics Commission, under pressure from the state ethics board, has released the report.

It concludes that Lopez did violate the public officers law and used the “perks and powers of his position” to engage in “willful and prolonged mistreatment” of his female staff.

Among the numerous allegations in the report, are that Lopez provided money for young female staffers to purchase sexier clothing, like short skirts and low-cut blouses, to wear in the office. The report also says that in one instance, Lopez, while drunk, tried to kiss one of the young woman. Other allegations are that Lopez attempted to share a hotel room with two other women on separate occasions while on business trips, and put his hand in inappropriate places on their bodies when they drove in a car together. In one of the grosser scenarios portrayed, Lopez requested a staffer administer eye drops for him. She later contracted pink eye. Lopez then gave the same woman $300 to buy herself a birthday gift.

The assemblyman also reportedly coerced the women into writing regular complimentary text messages and letters to him, stating how much they enjoyed working for him and how much they cared about him.  Lopez later tried to use the text messages against the women when he was later accused of sexual harassment, saying they were proof that the women welcomed his advances.

When assembly lawyers eventually asked Lopez about the complaints the women, who were in their late 20s, had made, Lopez, who is 71, blamed them on a generational misunderstanding.

The women testified that they were afraid to quit, because they worried that Lopez would take revenge and thwart their careers.

Sonia Ossorio, president of New York City’s National Organization for Women, calls the report “mind boggling.” She says the Assembly needs to take further action against Lopez.

“It’s so clear by this report, if we didn’t know it before, that Vito Lopez is not fit to serve office,” Ossorio said.

The ethics commission report also chronicles the reaction to the initial complaints against Lopez by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his top staff.  After the first two of the four women complained, the Assembly lawyers crafted a confidential settlement with them, and paid them over $100,000.  Members of the speaker’s staff voiced concern that if the details of Lopez’s actions were made public, it would generate sensationalized news reports. They also discussed how much more money the Assembly might be liable for if the case ever went to trial.  And they did not make the settlements public, and did not refer the accusations against Lopez to the Assembly Ethics Committee or the Legislative Ethics Commission.

After the secret settlement, Lopez hired two more young female staffers and harassed them in the same manner, according to the ethics commission report. When they complained, the speaker’s staff did refer the charges to the Assembly Ethics Committee, and Lopez was sanctioned.

It was not until the New York Times reported the existence of the first settlement with the first two of Lopez’s victims that Speaker Silver admitted he had approved the deal and that it was a mistake to keep it secret.

“It was a political mistake,” said Silver, said earlier this year, defending his response to the incidents.

“There are people who think there should be the right to have, on the part of victims, settlements that do not go public,” Silver said. “Because it will damage the careers of those people who complain.”

The ethics report does not conclude that Silver or his staff violated the public officers law, but says the circumstances surrounding the secret settlements should be referred to the Assembly Ethics Committee.

Ossorio, with NOW, says the report reads like a cover up, and a “violation of the public trust.”

“The Assembly leadership did everything in its power not to engage in an investigation,” Ossorio said. “And diverted the victims to a secret settlement.”

A spokesman for Silver released a statement pointing out that the ethics commission found that all of the Assembly’s actions were lawful, and says they operated under a “good faith belief” that they were acting in the interests of the victims.   

The head of the New York State Republican Party is calling on Silver to resign. In a statement, GOP Chairman Ed Cox said "whether or not there were legal wrong doings on the part of Assemblyman Lopez or Speaker Silver is irrelevant. Vito Lopez's actions were morally and ethically reprehensible and totally unforgivable."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.