A state judge on Friday opened up the scope of the investigation into the sexual harassment allegations leveled against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, including the payout settlement approved by Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher’s order will allow the special prosecutor in the case, Republican Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, to look at multiple charges of sexual misconduct against Lopez, as well as whether the $103,000 in public funds and other money used to settle previous allegations violated election, penal or other laws.
It is unknown whether Donovan had asked for the investigation to be expanded.
The order comes a day after reports that the state’s ethics committee, JCOPE, was conducting an investigation into the harassment charges, but was declining to pursue a full investigation into Silver’s handling of the settlement payment.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo said there was "no reason to believe” the reports that JCOPE was not conducting a full investigation, to include “the settlement payments and the circumstances under which they were made.” He called reports to the contrary “rumor.” But the statement issued a warning if the rumors turned out to be true.
“[I]f such rumors are true, we believe it would be unconscionable for any legislative appointees to JCOPE to block such investigation,” the statement read. “If they are, the Governor will appoint a Moreland Act Commission to conduct an investigation that would include these matters.” The Moreland Act would allow Cuomo to appoint his own special investigator.
In June, Silver’s office negotiated a settlement with two female aides to Lopez for a payment more than a hundred thousand dollars of public funds, as well as $32,000 from Lopez directly.
The Assembly’s sexual harassment policy explicitly states that a charge against a member is to be sent to the body’s ethics committee. Despite this, Silver did not refer the initial harassment charges, instead pursuing the settlement.
A second set of charges against Lopez a month later resulted in a censure in late August. In that case, Silver did follow the Assembly’s guidelines, sending the complaints directly to the chamber’s ethics committee. The committee found credible accusations of an intimidating and hostile work environment, as well as allegations Lopez groped at least one female staff member.
Silver later acknowledged his handling of the initial charges was wrong, but said the accusers in the case did not want the publicity. The lawyer for the two women, Gloria Allred, has said there was never a request to keep the case from being investigated.