Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is in the media spotlight today following new reports regarding his handling of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment controversy. On Friday it was announced that Assemblyman Lopez, Brooklyn’s powerful Democratic Party boss, was censured in connection with harassment allegations brought by two women. Silver stripped Lopez of his chairmanship of the housing committee. Then last night it was confirmed that Silver authorized a secret payment of more than $100,000 to settle at least one other claim against Lopez.
Many key elected officials, including the governor and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, have urged Lopez to step down. He has refused. Dick Dadey of the advocacy organization Citizens Union has called for an independent investigation of the payment. “Taxpayers should be funding public education, not (sweeping) harassment charges aside for bad elected officials,” he told the New York Times. In today’s newspaper, Times reporter Danny Hakim wrote:
The revelation about the amount of money that the Assembly paid to quietly settle a harassment case is sure to further stoke debate about the handling of harassment cases by Mr. Silver, the Legislature’s most powerful Democrat for the last 15 years. Officials familiar with the Assembly said they knew of no precedent for such a secret payment…
In an editorial today, the Daily News also called for an investigation by the newly created Joint Commission on Public Ethics:
The Assembly, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, is trying to slam shut the books on the sensational sexual harassment finding lodged against Assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez. Not so fast… The Assembly under Silver used public money to keep Lopez out of a public mess. There must be a full accounting of how that took place — as well as a complete ventilation of all the evidence presented against him. The revelations will no doubt show once again that the Legislature cannot police itself.
According to the Times, “The speaker has declined to discuss why he kept previous allegations from the public and used public money in a settlement. ” In 2003 he was accused of responding slowly after a top aide had been accused of rape. Yesterday Silver’s spokesman, Michael Whyland, said he could not discuss the cases specifically. Whyland did release a statement saying:
The only instance in which a complaint would not be handled by the ethics committee would be if a victim insisted for reasons of personal privacy that it not go before the committee. The Assembly would only keep such a matter confidential at the express insistence of the victim.
In a Friday press release, Silver said:
The Assembly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and we are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for all our employees… The Committee on Ethics and Guidance has been diligent in thoroughly and fairly investigating the allegations made in this case and I will immediately implement its recommendations.