In a rare about-face, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Tuesday he was wrong to handle a $103,000 settlement in a sexual harassment case against an official directly, outside the ethics committee system.
The scandal began Friday with an Assembly ethics committee finding Assemblyman Vito Lopez sexually harassed two women staffers. But the scandal then forced release of the six-figure settlement in a case kept secret under a confidential agreement. Silver soon found himself at the heart of the conflict.
Although he apparently adhered to law and policy as well as the victims' wishes for privacy in settling the case outside the committee structure without public disclosure, he said Tuesday he realized that is the wrong route.
"I now believe it was the wrong one from the perspective of transparency," Silver stated in a rare admission in New York politics. "I take full responsibility in not insisting that all cases go to the ethics committee."
Silver now says the Assembly shouldn't agree to confidential settlements using public money that would shield an official's name. Silver also says cases should go through full committee investigations and settlements should be made public without naming victims.
"Going forward I will work with independent experts and our counsel's office to ensure that we put in place policies that both protect the interests of victims and provide adequate transparency and accountability to the public," Silver said. The heat was turned up Tuesday as Lopez, a veteran Democrat in Silver's majority, continued to say he was innocent and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for another investigation of the accusations.
Cuomo said the state Commission on Public Ethics should investigate, but he defended the use of taxpayers' money to settle sexual harassment cases against public officials.
Silver had released the voucher Monday that shows $103,000 was paid in June to settle a sexual harassment case, but the majority citing confidentiality agreements with the victim or victims wouldn't say if Lopez was involved.
"The state settling a claim happens all the time," Cuomo told reporters when asked if public money should be used. "This would not be the first harassment case that the state settled. I wish it were the last, but my guess is it will not be the last. These settlements have happened before.
"It's the obligation of the state to settle the claims, if you can," Cuomo said.
Lopez continues to deny he ever harassed anyone and remain in the seat he's held for 28 years, a post that has paid him a full salary as well as his pension for a total of $156,634 a year.
"He's entitled to the facts. You don't want a rush to judgment," Cuomo said. But Cuomo said Lopez should resign if he is proven to have sexually harassed the women.
"I have never sexually harassed any staff and I hope and intend to prove in the coming months the political nature of these accusations," Lopez said in a statement resigning as Kings County Democratic Committee chairman.
"The onslaught of character attacks has put enormous emotional pressure on my family and close friends," Lopez said.
Silver had toughened the chamber's sexual harassment policies and training in recent years after a string of accusation and convictions, including the 2003 case of Silver's counsel, Michael Boxley, who was convicted of sexual misconduct. The majority denied it paid $103,000 to hush up a case and protect a member by avoiding an ethics committee investigation.
On Tuesday, an attorney who said she represented women sexually abused in the Assembly said neither she nor her clients sought to avoid a full ethics committee investigation.
"We have never requested or insisted that a legislative committee or other body not proceed with an investigation," said attorney Gloria Allred. "To the contrary, we believe that it is in the interest of good government and working women that there is full accountability and transparency about workplace sex harassment and that there should be full investigations of accusations of workplace harassment."
An Albany Times Union editorial noted the scandal is a return of state government's scandal-riddled "bad old days."