Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Controversy continues to swirl around embattled Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, and has now enveloped the Assembly’s top Democrat. As Lopez announced Tuesday that he would not seek reelection as the head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, questions were raised over how a six-figure payout from Speaker Sheldon Silver was made to settle a previous harassment charge against Lopez — a decision Silver said late Tuesday was “wrong.”
On June 13, a $103,080 payment was made to at least one woman who came forward with similar harassment accusations against Lopez as those revealed in an Assembly ethics committee report last Friday. This earlier incident was never brought before the committee, according to a report in The New York Times.
On Tuesday, Silver said Assembly lawyers had previously felt that if an Assembly employee filing a complaint was represented by his or her own counsel and requested a confidential mediation and financial settlement, the Assembly would defer to the request and not hand the complaint over to the ethics committee.
“While that opinion is both legally correct and ethical and can result in a resolution sought by complaining employees, I know believe it was the wrong one from the perspective of transparency,” Silver said.
In a statement Tuesday from Gloria Allred, an attorney representing the first complaint against Lopez, said she has “never requested or insisted that a legislative committee or other body not proceed with an investigation.”
The state comptroller’s office confirmed they authorized payment to the victim whose complaint did not go to the committee. The payment was made out of the Assembly’s appropriation from the state’s general fund.
A person with knowledge about the transaction, who asked to speak on background, said the Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office took no part in the negotiations between the Assembly Speaker’s office and any claimant, and that the payment audit unit was unaware what the payment was for.
“We make legal payments, legal service payments on behalf of agencies and other entities all the times. We process thousands of these a year,” the person said. “There’s nothing that would raise a red flag for us to look at it or anything.”
Additionally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for an independent investigation into the incidents by the state’s ethics board.
“JCOPE should do an investigation of the allegations that have been made,” Cuomo said. “and then let’s have the facts.”
Meanwhile, a letter reportedly from Lopez announced that the assemblyman will not seek “the position of party chair of the Kings County Democratic Party.”
“My political history has been to fight through challenges and political conflicts but, for the sake of loved ones and the Democratic Party, it is important that I take this action,” read the unsigned letter.
Lopez’s office would not confirm or deny that the letter was in fact from the assemblyman.
The growing controversy around Lopez comes less than a week after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced that the chamber’s bipartisan ethics committee had investigated two sexual harassment complaints against Lopez and found them credible.
Silver stripped Lopez of his seniority and leadership status in the Assembly last Friday. According to the report from the ethics committee, his two accusers said Lopez’s harassment of them began in June and continued through July, when they made their complaints.
Calls have since come for Lopez to resign both his county chairmanship and his Assembly seat.
In the letter Tuesday, the assemblyman appeared committed to retaining his legislative seat. “I plan to continue to serve the residents of the 53rd Assembly District and the Borough of Brooklyn,” the letter said.
For more on the growing controversy surrounding Assemblyman Vito Lopez and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, listen to Richard Hake's interview with Karen DeWitt on Morning Edition.