A retired engineer took the state's powerful Assembly speaker to court on Monday, accusing him of using $103,000 in taxpayer money to protect his own political interests by secretly settling sexual harassment claims involving a fellow lawmaker.
Robert Schulz asked a state judge to require that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver reimburse taxpayers for the 2012 settlement. Silver brokered the deal to end claims against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat.
Schulz alleged the secret settlement was intended to protect Silver's powerful position and violated the constitution by using public money for a "private undertaking." An attorney for the Assembly, meanwhile, argued Schulz lacks the legal standing to proceed with his case.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O'Connor said she will issue a written decision on the Assembly's request.
But there were plenty of fireworks in that hour of arguments.
"We are not governed by the rule of whim, or the rule of man," said Schulz, who isn't a lawyer. "We are governed by the rule of law."
Schulz had accused Silver of "a bit of tickery," making insincere public comments on his opposition to sexual harassment after he approved the settlement, and of "misleading the court." At one point Schulz called Silver's argument "hogwash."
"The constitution is a set of principles to govern the government," said Shulz. "It's all that stands between the people and total tyranny and despotism."
Silver approved the settlement to end the first set of sexual harassment claims against Lopez. The deal avoided the Assembly's ethics committee process, which Silver had said spared the women from being identified publicly. However, the women said they never sought secrecy. Lopez was accused shortly after the settlement by more young, female staffers. Months later, Silver publicly stripped Lopez of his perks and power of seniority.
"We're comfortable that the payment is lawful and that the complaint is going to be dismissed," said Chris Massaroni, the Assembly's attorney, after the court appearance.
Massaroni disputed Schulz's claim bypassing the Assembly's internal policies are the same as violating the constitution. Massaroni said Silver is fully authorized to act in the best interest of the Assembly. In this case, Silver reduced the settlement to a fraction of the amount sought by the former staffers. Massaroni said Schulz used ``snippets'' of the constitution out of context to build his case.
"No matter how many times Mr. Schulz says it, no matter how impassioned he is ... there were claims threatening the Assembly and [Silver] was well within his rights," Massaroni told the judge.
Schulz tried to introduce Silver's press release after the settlement in which Silver said he wouldn't again do a secret settlement and regretted the action. The judge declined to accept it as part of her deliberation, but said it could be reintroduced if there is a trial.