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NY State Assembly Speaker Silver moves on from Lopez controversy

One day after the state’s powerful Assembly speaker admitted “glaring failures” in his handling of a sexual abuse case, the Albany establishment seemed to be moving on, with the usual round of press conferences, bill passage, and leaders meetings.

Tuesday it was business as usual -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver attended a top level meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate leaders on casino gambling, and oversaw passage of a one-house bill on the Dream Act, to help children of undocumented immigrants get funding for college.

“Why deny these students?” Silver asked. “There is simply no moral or economic argument to justify it.”

One day earlier, a contrite and tense Silver was saying he was sorry, and admitting he committed a glaring failure by initially trying to keep a settlement with two alleged victims of Assemblyman Vito Lopez secret. Lopez was later accused by two other women, and has, under pressure, resigned.

“The responsibility for the mistakes that were made in the handling of the original complaints rests solely with me,” Silver said. “It is my responsibility to ensure that those mistakes are never made again.”

Silver announced changes in the way the Assembly handles sexual harassment incidents, saying he would create an independent investigator’s office, and mandate that every employee immediately report any allegations of abuse. And he says there will be no more secret settlements of any kind.

The head of the New York State Republican Party and some women’s groups have called for Silver to resign. One Democratic assemblyman, Michael Kearns, of Buffalo, has also asked for the speaker to step down. But Kearns, who ran on the Republican ticket for election, is considered an outlier on this issue.

The moment seems to have passed for more established members of the Democratic Party to denounce Silver. Cuomo, who has said it is not his place to say who is speaker of the Assembly, says there’s a distinction between what Lopez did and what Silver did. And he says he disagrees with those who say Silver should go.

“I believe the Speaker mishandled the complaint and the situation,” said Cuomo. “It is different, however, than what Vito Lopez did which was to actually be the person who was abusing women."

The controversy over Silver’s handling of the sex abuse cases and Lopez’s resignation, comes after two former Senate leaders have been accused of bribery and embezzlement, and other lawmakers have admitted to wearing a wire, and aiding in federal probes against several legislative colleagues.

Cuomo says the constant drumbeat of scandal in the legislature could actually help push forward his agenda to enact a Women’s Equality Act and campaign finance and other reforms before the session is over next month.

“You know how you counter bad publicity? With good publicity,” he said. “You know how you get good publicity? Do something. Pass bills that help the people of the state of New York. ”

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, agrees. “This is absolutely the only appropriate response which any legislator can have to this cascade of sorry events, is to show that they are capable of changing the culture,” Lerner said. “That is what the end of this session should be about.”

If lawmakers do want to accept the governor’s agenda items, they’ll have to act fast. A poll by Siena College out this week finds that two-thirds of New Yorkers see the state devolving back into dysfunction with every passing day.

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.