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Scrutiny Over Harassment Payout Shifts to State Offices

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The role the offices of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli played in a settlement payout has become the focus of attention as fall out continues from Assemblyman Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal.  In June, Speaker Sheldon Silver approved a $103,080 settlement to two women who claimed Lopez sexually harassed them.

According to records provided by the Attorney General's office, an Assembly lawyer was in contact with counterparts at Schneiderman's office about a settlement deal between the two complainants. In a May 29 email, Assembly counsel Bill Collins announced an agreement "for a total cash outlay for damages and attorney's fees of $135,080" to the two staffers, of which Lopez would himself pay $35,000.

Lawyers in the AG's office reviewed draft agreements between Lopez and his accusers. The agreement also mandated sexual harassment training for Lopez and his staff, and contained language to indicate there was no admission of guilt on Lopez's part.

In the end, however, a spokesman for Schneiderman said the AG's office didn't see the final agreement. According to the AG's office, they often receive request that the terms of the settlement be confidential, which they say they regularly reject based on their policy.

"[T]he Office of the Attorney General did not represent the Assembly in its internal employment dispute, and had no role in approving, negotiating or authorizing any settlement reached by the Assembly," James Freedland, Schneiderman's communications director, said in a statement.

Comptroller DiNapoli's office was also involved in the payout. The Comptroller's payment audit unit was responsible for cutting the $103,000 check to the law firm representing the two female employees.

According to DiNapoli's office, on June 13 Assembly counsel Bill Collins contacted their lawyer about "a pending legal settlement with questions related to income tax implications.”

"We were not asked nor did we provide any opinion on the merits of the settlement," said a statement released by DiNapoli's office. "The Comptroller's office was not a party to the negotiations. At no time was this matter brought to the Comptroller's personal attention."

Speaker Silver has said his handling of the payout was wrong. But he has maintained it was both legal and ethical. Lawyers for the women in the settlement have challenged both claims.

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