NY Ethics Board Emerges from Meeting with No Comment on Lopez

The state's ethics panel emerged from a two-hour, closed-door meeting on Tuesday without commenting on whether it will investigate a sexual harassment scandal in the Assembly.

The meeting occurred after calls mounted last week for an independent investigation in the harassment scandal surrounding Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez and a settlement approved by Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics met in a special session after Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested in a news conference that the board should look into the private settlement that used $103,000 in public money. It settled some sexual harassment claims against Lopez.

When asked about a possible Lopez probe, Patrick Bulgaro, a Silver appointee to the commission, had little to divulge.

“Regrettably, I’ve got nothing to say,” Bulgaro said. “No comment.”  

After the meeting, Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voter’s, said JCOPE is the appropriate body for this investigation to be had, especially since Lopez says he has no intention of resigning so that the facts of the case can emerge.

She said a Lopez investigation could be the first big test for JCOPE.

“This will tell us how they are constructed and, from what I can gather from looking at their bylaws, this is a violation of the public officer’s law and that certainly falls under their purview,” she said. “I think this is a test of how they handle this.”

Under the ethics panel rules, commissioners can neither confirm nor deny that a probe has been launched, and must keep all details of the investigation secret until a final report is issued. For a JCOPE investigation to go forward, eight of the 14 members have to vote in favor, including two of the legislative Democrat’s appointees. Given the scope of the scandal, Bartoletti did not JCOPE would vote down an investigation.

Bartoletti added the circumstances surrounding the secret $103,000 settlement using taxpayer money need to be “explored further.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver agreed to a once-secret settlement that he said was requested by the two former Lopez staff members who made the accusations. Silver says he won't approve any more secret settlements because they conflict with the need for transparency in government.

Lopez denies he sexually harassed anyone.

In addition to a possible state ethics commission probe, the Staten Island District Attorney, Dan Donovan, who has be chosen to serve as a special prosecutor in the case, has begun a criminal investigation into the charges against Assemblyman Lopez.

Karen DeWitt contributed reporting.