It has been a week of very bad press for State Assembly Sheldon Silver, who finds himself in the hot seat over his handling of Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s multiple sex harassment cases. Here are the latest details.
In addition to a $103,000 secret payment to two Lopez accusers, it came to light yesterday that the victims received $32,000 from Lopez directly. In the past day, Gloria Allred, an attorney representing the women, disputed Silver’s contention that a confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement prevented the Assembly from referring the case to its ethics committee. In a statement, Allred wrote:
Entering into discussions with lawyers for an alleged victim or victims is not a substitute for an investigation, particularly since the state legislature, unlike private attorneys representing an individual or individuals, would be aware of prior complaints and/or other unlawful conduct by the same alleged harasser. Because the legislature is in a unique position to have knowledge of prior allegations of past sexual misconduct by a legislator, the legislature should understand that it has a heightened ethical and legal duty to immediately conduct a fair and impartial investigation in order to ensure that all employees of elected officials are safe, rather than victimized. Mr. Silver has to shift his priorities. The legislators are elected officials. Their job is not to sexually harass women. If they do, there should be no corner in which they can hide. The state legislature should do everything possible to bring current and past allegations of this nature to light.
Yesterday afternoon, the Speaker released a statement of his own. It acknowledged that at least two organizations – New York’s Common Cause and the National organization of Woman – are filing formal complaints with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE):
I would welcome a JCOPE investigation, as a JCOPE inquiry would supersede any confidentiality agreements that exist and allow all of the facts to come out. Those facts will show that any decision by the Assembly to enter into any settlement agreement was both legal and ethical and made out of deference to the wishes of the complainants. In addition the Assembly has written to counsel in any previous settlement asking for a release from any confidentiality clauses that may exist so that we can legally and properly release to the public all information relating to any settlement and how it was reached.
Earlier this week, Silver accepted responsibility for mishandling the case and said he would treat future sex harassment cases in a more transparent manner. But the mea culpa did little to quiet the media frenzy surrounding the Assembly controversy. In today’s Times, five women who worked for Lopez describe a “hostile work environment.” The Daily News questioned why elected officials have been so reluctant to speak out about the controversy:
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is so feared in New York politics that he can issue a covert payment to cover up a sexual harassment scandal — and still earn praise from one of the city’s top feminist officials. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), who earlier this year received a “Fearless Trailblazer” award from the Feminist Majority Foundation, issued a statement praising Silver for acting “decisively” to punish Assemblyman Vito Lopez after an ethics committee found he’d sexually harassed two staff members.
The story continued:
Even as he issued an apology this week for the coverup, the voices that would typical(ly) bash such behavior were notably silent. The Daily News surveyed nearly two dozen female office holders — including some of New York’s most vocal lawmakers — and most either did not return calls or offered tepid excuses about needing more information. Other women, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, issued vague statements praising the mea culpa Silver issued Tuesday.
The Post, no friend of the Speaker, praised the governor for urging an independent investigation and blasted “politics as usual” in Albany:
Silver… has been an enabler of misconduct for years — going back at least to when he used tax dollars to bail one of his own key aides out of a sexual-misconduct mess. Authorizing Lopez’s payout, in other words, was just another day at the office for the speaker. And, in that respect, getting to the bottom of Silver’s behavior is — institutionally speaking — of far more importance than determining who Lopez groped and when he groped them.
Even the Jewish Daily Forward made note of the story, and the Speaker’s role in it:
Silver, who represents Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the New York State Assembly, is one of the most powerful legislators in Albany. Speaker of the Assembly since 1994, he’s spent nearly two decades as one of the so-called “three men in a room” whose decisions carry the most weight in state government. He is also a member of the Bialystoker Synagogue, one of the few Orthodox synagogues left on the Lower East Side. Silver is closely tied to the neighborhood’s remaining Jewish power brokers. In 2008, Silver brushed off a primary challenge from Paul Newell, a young Yiddish-speaking Democratic activist.