Latest Developments: Speaker Silver Under Scrutiny

Here’s the latest on the controversy that erupted one week ago over Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s handling of the Vito Lopez sex harassment cases…

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics has launched a preliminary investigation into the Speaker’s decision to authorize payments of $103,000 to two of Assemblyman Lopez’s accusers.  The state Attorney General’s office released documents yesterday showing the women had initially asked for $1.2 million to settle the cases.

Today the New York Times offers this assessment of the predicament facing the longtime Lower East Side lawmaker:

For 18 years, (Silver) has led the State Assembly, and presided as the Legislature’s most powerful Democrat. But he now faces an investigation by the (ethics panel), which is controlled by appointees and allies of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat with whom he has had an uneasy relationship. Last year, state lawmakers approved the governor’s plan to expand the jurisdiction of the ethics commission to encompass the Legislature; the investigation of Mr. Silver’s office represents a largely unprecedented incursion by the executive branch into his chamber.

Last week, Silver censured Lopez and stripped the powerful Brooklyn Assemblyman of his housing committee chairmanship.  Later, the Speaker released a statement admitting that even though the Assembly had acted legally and ethically in the Lopez matter, the handling of the cases lacked “transparency.”  He said the settlement was kept secret to protect the womens’ privacy.

Gloria Allred, one of the attorneys representing the women, released another statement yesterday (there have been many from her office this week) attacking Silver’s conduct in the settlement negotiations and their aftermath. “It appears that the Assembly speaker, in an effort to divert attention from the Assembly’s conduct, is attempting to blame the women who brought claims against Mr. Lopez and then agreed to a settlement,” Allred said.  In response, Silver’s spokesman, Michael Whyland, said, “At all times, the Assembly has acted to protect the privacy of the victims and has deferred to their preferences in this matter.”

The latest Times piece on the growing scandal highlights the fact that Assembly Democrats are “rallying around the Speaker.”  The article also pointed out that not everyone believes the new ethics commission is well-suited to the task at hand. David Grandeau, formerly the state’s chief  lobbying regulator, told the Times,  “You passed this legislation a year ago because you wanted to get the public ‘atta boys’ for doing ethics reform,” adding, “Of course there was going to come the day when the governor’s handpicked investigators were going to be investigating members of the Legislature. That day is here.”

Lopez has already agreed to step down as Democratic Party boss in Brooklyn. There’s speculation that he will soon give up his Assembly seat, as well.  Meanwhile, political observers are speculating about the future of Speaker Silver.   On WNYC yesterday, Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah talked about whether the scandal could cost Silver his job.  “It is very embarrassing. It is not exactly clear whether it removes Assembly Speaker Silver from his speakership.”   As the Post (among other newspapers) reported, the documents released yesterday could potentially damage other high-ranking state Democrats with close ties to Silver:

The records also show that Silver, accused by some of a cover-up to protect Lopez, had extensive help from outside the chamber in crafting the legal settlement that had been cloaked in a confidentiality agreement until Thursday. The records show Silver’s counsel worked through three drafts of the settlement with staff from the Attorney General’s Office and state Comptroller’s Office. The documents appear to show a larger role in the Assembly sex harassment settlement by the Attorney General’s and Comptroller’s offices than those offices previously stated. Spokesmen for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli have said lower-level workers had little say in the settlement and no power to question or stop it.

On Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show, Paybarah said this about the new revelations:

(The episode) sort of builds the argument that when you have one party operating these offices that are supposed to be a check-and-balance on one another that something can go wrong and unfortunately something has gone wrong.  it sort of bolsters the argument that you need someone who’s more independent, who’s not part of this traditional Democratic power base to sort of be operating over there… It’s very problematic.