WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
WNYC's Bob Hennelly spoke with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver about Lopez. To hear the full interview, click the audio play button above.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Monday that he has asked for the resignation of a Brooklyn assemblyman accused of sexually harassing female staffers, a scandal that ensnared Silver when he brokered a secret settlement with the women using public money.
"I told him it would be best for him personally and send a message" against sexual harassment, Silver told reporters in Charlotte, N.C., at the Democratic National Convention.
Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who has said he never sexually harassed anyone, didn't immediately respond to telephone messages and emails sent to his district office.
Silver said he had asked Lopez to quit after an Assembly ethics committee in August found that he sexually harassed two staffers. Silver has caught heat for a secret $103,000 settlement in June using taxpayers' money to end the separate sexual harassment charges made against Lopez.
Silver told WNYC that he and others felt they were doing what was in the “best interest of the victims” when he didn’t make the payout public. He said it is a “delicate balance” between victims’ privacy and the public’s need for transparency.
“This was not a cover-up as such,” he said. “This was a pre-litigation settlement. … The mistake was not making it public. The mistake was not proceeding to a reference to the ethics committee.”
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli told WNYC on Tuesday that his office signed off on the sum but played no role in negotiating it. He said the state as an employer has to have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. But he said he doesn't know how often the state has paid out on similar claims because the settlements are booked as just payments to law firms.
Meanwhile, New York's government ethics panel is in a closed-door, special session on Tuesday and is expected to take up a sexual harassment case that has roiled Albany.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics is expected to consider Silver's agreement.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested JCOPE should review the scandal, which dominated news out of Albany a week ago.
A day earlier, at the annual breakfast before the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn, incumbents and political hopefuls gathered to stump and pose for grip-and-grin photo ops in what is widely considered the unofficial start to the political season.
But this year, the sexual harassment scandal that in recent weeks has led to Lopez being stripped of his seniority and leadership positions was on nearly everyone’s mind.
The state’s ethics committee and a specially appointed prosecutor, Staten Island DA Dan Donovan, are moving forward with separate probes.
“I think there’s going to be lots of scrutiny, and I think that’s what everybody wants,” said former city comptroller and 2013 mayoral candidate Bill Thompson. “I think things have been handled well by the different levels. I think the Speaker’s comments indicated that he had regretted some of the actions that occurred.”
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz said he hopes the full story will now come out.
“The speaker said, ‘I made a mistake,’ and that’s it. So now we know it’s out there and now we’ll, maybe, [get] the full story, we hope,” he said.
Lopez hasn’t resigned from the Assembly and remains the head of the county organization until elections later this month. But already there are rumblings about his possible replacement. Apparent frontrunner, former judge and Assemblyman Frank Seddio, was at the breakfast, meeting and greeting people.
The Associated Press contributed reporting