The head of a leading woman's rights group today blasted Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver accusing him of a "cover-up" and demonstrating an "acceptance and tolerance of sexual harassment."
"We will not allow the New York State Assembly to disregard women's rights," said Sonia Ossorio, president of New York's National Organization For Women (NOW) chapter.
The lawyer representing women allegedly harassed by Assemblyman Vito Lopez also blasted Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver Wednesday. She said Silver needs to "shift his priorities" to better protect women from harassment in the halls of the capital.
"The legislators are elected officials. Their job is not to sexually harass women," attorney Gloria Allred said in criticizing Silver for keeping secret earlier harassment claims against Lopez. "The state legislature is not above the law which requires that all complaints of sexual harassment and sex discrimination be fully and promptly investigated"
The growing outrage comes after Silver signed off on a secret $103,000 tax-payer funded settlement to two women who claimed Lopez physically and verbally harassed them. But the deal -- and use of taxpayer money -- was kept in the shadows.
But others hired after that $103,000 settlement complained they were the victims of sexual harassment -- complaints that were verified by the assembly ethics committee which investigated the claims. But ethics committee members said they were never told of the earlier harassment complaints and cash settlement.
Silver issued a statement yesterday it was "wrong from the perspective of transparency" not to make public news of the initial allegation and the tax-payer funded settlement. Silver said the victims names could have been kept secret while revealing the allegations and the process will improve in the future.
But critics pointed to a 2003 case where Silver was accused of mishandling sex harassment charges against one of his own aides. That aide was later arrested and pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct charges.
While being accused of being a serial harasser of women, Vito Lopez says he denies any wrongdoing. He rejects calls for him to resign from office. Lopez did say he will give up his post as Brooklyn democratic leader.
The head of New York's Common Cause is joining NOW in filing a formal complaint with the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). The Citizen's Union is filing is own complaint.
"Sexual harassment is illegal," said Susan Lerner calling for an investigation into "...the failure of process which resulted in that conduct being hidden, tacitly accepted and allowed to continue."
Late Wednesday, Speaker Silver issued a statement saying he would welcome JCOPE investigation in part because it could cut through confidentiality agreements that were part of the original deal with Lopez's accusers. "Those facts will show that any decision by the Assembly to enter into any settlement agreement was both legal and ethical and made out of deference to the wishes of the complainants," Silver said.
But Allred, who represents 2 of the 4 women known to have filed complaints, said Silver and the Assembly had a duty to investigate and make allegations against Lopez public.
On Friday, the ethics committee said it found Lopez had "multiple incidents" of unwelcome physical conduct including grabbing at interns private areas. Lopez denies it saying he is a victim of "character assassination."
Governor Cuomo called for an investigation by JCOPE but added that generally some cases are settled privately before lawsuits are filed.