State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has gone to Charlotte, North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention but the controversy surrounding his handling of sexual harassment cases in Albany has followed him down south. At the convention, Silver told the Daily News that he called embattled Assemblyman Vito Lopez Friday, and asked him to resign. “He basically was inaudible,” Silver explained. “I got the impression he didn’t appreciate my advice,” he said.
More than a week ago, it was revealed that the Assembly and Lopez quietly settled sexual harassment lawsuits for about $130,000. Lopez was stripped of his chairmanship of the housing committee and agreed to step down as Brooklyn Democratic Party boss. Silver admitted that it was wrong to keep the settlements secret.
Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, waited more than a week after the scandal broke before he phoned Lopez, explaining that he initially believed the embattled lawmaker would resign on his own. The state’s second most powerful politician later told reporters Monday that after being rebuffed by Lopez he is trying to determine if something can be done to force Lopez out of the Assembly. “I think it was clear all along, since the conclusions were reached, that he should resign,” Silver said… “We made a mistake. I acknowledge a mistake was made,” Silver told The News, referring to the once-secret settlement. He insisted no other hush-hush settlements have been made during his 18-year tenure as speaker. He also vowed to see that no more confidential settlements are entered into, and promised to refer all future sexual harassment claims against lawmakers to the Assembly Ethics Committee. Yet he defended the covert arrangement in Lopez’s case, saying he did it to protect the victims and save the state from a potential $1.2 million lawsuit. “We always wanted to do what we thought were the wishes of the victims,” Silver said. “In this case, that was the intended motive. We believed at the time that the victims wanted a quiet solution to this matter.”
Silver elaborated, in an interview with the New York Times, about the negotiations that led to the settlement:
“What was demanded was tremendously more than what the case was ultimately settled for,” he said, “and the judgment of settling the case was that we will save the state money on potential liabilities here, in addition to the fact that the assemblyman agreed to pay a sum for his own actions… Having said that, the confidentiality agreement came out of mediation, and it should not have been agreed to, and that’s the No. 1 mistake we made; and No. 2 was not sending it to the ethics commission,” he said. “And we will not do either one of those again in the future, should the occasion arise.”
In spite of the controversy, Silver will continue to lead the New York delegation in Charlotte this week. Later in the week, from the convention floor, he will announce the state delegation’s support for President Obama. The News reported over the weekend:
One New York source with ties to the Democratic National Committee said there was worrying about Silver’s front-and-center position given the Lopez scandal that has dogged him for more than a week. “Quietly, the DNC was suggesting he might reconsider (his role), but was not insisting on it,” the source said. “There was some deep concern that there might be more fallout during the convention.” Two state Democratic lawmakers groused that Silver’s presence at the convention could prove to be a distraction. “I didn’t come to the national convention to answer questions about how Shelly handled the Lopez situation,” one Assembly Democrat said. “I came here to renominate the President.” The two lawmakers argued that, at the very least, the powerful speaker should not be the face of the delegation during the roll call leading up to Obama’s nomination. They say he should turn the responsibility over to a female delegate, like U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, or even state Democratic party co-chair Keith Wright, who like Obama, is black. “They could have done so many things if they wanted to give a great visual for New York,” one said. “Shelly is the worst visual.”
In this week’s New York Magazine, Chris Smith looks at the potential impact “Vitogate” will have on Silver’s future and that of Governor Andrew Cuomo:
The 68-year-old has lost more than a few steps from his game in recent years, but if the Lopez debacle finally topples Silver, it would end state political life as we know it. Which sounds like it would be good news for Governor Andrew Cuomo—but this being Albany, things are never quite so simple… It is nearly impossible to overstate the depth and reach of (Silver’s) power in Albany for much of the past two decades. He was first elected by a district on the Lower East Side in 1976, rose to speaker of the Assembly in 1994, and has methodically consolidated his control of that half of the State Legislature… Cuomo also declared he’d like to see the Lopez accusations investigated by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which could keep the chatter going for months and raise the prospect of uncomfortable testimony by Silver. That path isn’t without risk for Cuomo, too: The ethics committee will no doubt do its job independently and responsibly, but jcope’s close ties to the governor guarantee that its work will be interpreted as falling in line with the governor’s desires. If the facts get worse, and Silver is implicated in a real cover-up, that won’t matter. “In Andrew’s mind, chaos is always good for him,” an Albany veteran says. Certainly it provides Cuomo with some new openings, but the governor has worked very efficiently with Silver and Skelos atop the Assembly and State Senate. He’s also savvy enough to know that a stable and functional Albany is good for everyone, and that a void in the Assembly creates an unpredictable new dynamic. The best outcome, for Cuomo, is probably that Silver survives—further weakened, but grateful to make it into a third decade as speaker. Silver and Lopez have the most to fear from this scandal. But it may also become a fascinating test of how deftly Andrew Cuomo deals with being handed even more power.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics is expected to begin an investigation of the Lopez cases when it meets today, although since the panel’s deliberations are secret, there’s no way of knowing for sure.