If Assemblymember Vito Lopez hoped that stepping down as the leader of the Kings County Democratic Party would quiet his critics, he was wrong.
In the wake of ongoing revelations about his alleged harassment of female employees in his state office, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan has been named special prosecutor in the investigation against against Lopez.
The announcement comes less than a day after Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes called for a special prosecutor to look into the allegations against Lopez – who has said he wants to stay in office — that led Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to strip the 14-term legislator of his committee chair position and order him to go through “supplemental sexual harassment training.”
Noting that he had been informed by Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, the chair of the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance, that some of the alleged improprieties had occurred within Kings County, Hynes applied to New York Supreme Court for a special prosecutor, explaining, “After review with my senior staff I determined that the support of the Kings County Democratic County Committee, led by Assemblyman Lopez, for my re-election campaign in 2009 and my upcoming re-election (2013) had the potential to create an appearance of impropriety requiring me to apply for the appointment of another District Attorney to conduct an investigation of the committee’s findings.”
Earlier this year, in settlement of their complaint, Silver authorized a payout of $103,000 to two women who had accused Lopez of sexual harassment, with the transaction handled confidentially, reportedly at the women’s request. Lopez allegedly harassed the former staffers both verbally and physically, touching them against their will and also making suggestive comments. The two women also received a payout from Lopez of $32,000.
There have been numerous calls for Lopez to step down from his legislative post. Among those who have demanded that Lopez vacate his Assembly seat should the allegations be proven is Democratic District Leader Frank Seddio, who has already announced his candidacy to replace Lopez as chair of the Kings County Democratic Party.
On Thursday, Seddio said, “The accusations by former staffers of Assemblyman Lopez … are appalling. If true, Vito has to resign from the Assembly. Sexual harassment is unacceptable anywhere, especially the workplace, and the behavior of which he stands accused is unacceptable by anyone, let alone by a public official.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo has also called on Lopez to resign should the allegations be proven, and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Representative Jerrold Nadler, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer have all called on Lopez to resign immediately.
There has also been a growing cry for an inquiry into how Silver handled the payout, with Citizen’s Union Executive Director Dick Dadey calling on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to investigate.
“In asking for these investigations, there must be no rush to judgment, but it is necessary that the new independent state ethics watchdog, JCOPE, provide to the public the full facts and circumstances of how the State Assembly and Speaker Silver handled these matters. It is troubling that the first Lopez matter was dealt with secretly, without the knowledge of the Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee or disclosure to the public,” Dadey wrote, stressing, “Citizens Union is deeply disturbed that there was a confidential, private settlement in which public funds were used.”
Dadey also asked JCOPE to look into how state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli handled the situation, “since it has been reported that the Comptroller’s office approved the payment and that the Attorney General’s Office provided informal legal consultation to the Assembly.”
Schneiderman, for his part, was quick to release a statement. He said, ““If true, the actions of Assemblyman Lopez are reprehensible, and the decision of the Assembly to keep secret the provision of ‑ and even the existence of ‑ a settlement agreement was wholly inappropriate and contrary to the public interest. Our office policy requires that agreements of this kind do not include confidentiality provisions. On May 30, 2012, an OAG attorney provided the Assembly’s counsel with a copy of a model pre-litigation settlement agreement which included no provision mandating secrecy or confidentiality.
Schneiderman added that his office had “already provided [JCOPE] and the press with copies of all communications with the Assembly in our possession relating to this matter, and stand ready to work with JCOPE to ensure a full and fair investigation.”
Lopez has maintained his innocence. When he announced that he would not run for another term as county leader, he released a statement saying, “The onslaught of character attacks has put enormous emotional pressures on my family and close friends. I plan to continue to serve the residents of the 53rd Assembly District and the borough of Brooklyn. With that objective in mind and with appreciation of the support that I have received in recent days from so many friends, community and religious leaders and political leaders, I regrettably take this action.”
Efforts to reach Lopez for further comment were unsuccessful.