By Dr. David J. Sussman
“New Yorkers deserve a more accountable and transparent state government that works for them.” In light of the current scandal with Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez, that statement couldn’t be truer or more prescient, and I’ll return to it a little later.
As New Yorkers around the state are coming to learn of the Vito Lopez scandal and associated Democratic cover-up, friends, neighbors, and many local community members have asked me my opinion, so here it is: this whole situation stinks. If everything is as it seems, not only did a senior leader in New York act in a completely unacceptable manner, but his actions were tolerated and protected by the Democratic leadership of the state. The action itself is enough to cause outrage, but the cover-up must cause us to examine what kind of culture would tolerate and even protect that sexual harassment.
For anyone who doesn’t know, according to the New York Times, on August 24, a bipartisan ethics committee of the New York State Assembly found that Vito Lopez, a Democratic Assemblyman, “groped, kissed, and verbally harassed two female employees.” But that’s just a piece of the story. It turns out, according to the Times, that Sheldon Silver, the Democratic leader of the Assembly, had known about the incident since January and, rather than bringing it before an ethics committee, orchestrated a cover-up—signing off on a secret settlement claim of $135,000, at least $103,000 of which was taxpayer money, to keep the matter quiet.
Not only that, but Mr. Lopez and Mr. Silver didn’t act alone. The Times reports that members of the offices of the state comptroller and the attorney general were involved—offices run by Thomas DiNapoli and Eric Schneiderman, Democrats both. This culture of corruption is even acknowledged. Democratic State Senator Liz Krueger said to the Associated Press that her colleagues are abuzz about how long the accusations were known without anyone taking action. She told AP that there is “a culture within the highest levels of government in this state—the legislative and the executive—that we are above the rules and the law.”
New Yorkers know better. As Americans we know that no one is above the rules and the law, and this behavior is just inexcusable. The sexual harassment itself is outrageous. I’m the father of a daughter, married to my wife for 31 years, and, obviously, the son of a mother. I hear this and think about my daughter, my wife, and my mother. Every woman has the right to work and to expect to work free from sexual harassment. Period. The Democratic leaders of the Assembly, however, seem to take another position. Instead of confronting the bad behavior, bringing it to the public, and seeking justice, they sought to keep it quiet, and piling outrage on outrage, committed over $100,000 of taxpayer money—our money—to do so. For them, the behavior wasn’t inexcusable—after all, they tried to excuse and protect it.
Having uncovered this culture of corruption, it’s time to take stock and find out what exactly has been going on in Albany. What happened? Where is the outrage? The quote I started this piece with comes from a 2011 letter by Democratic Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, a two-decade incumbent who highlights himself as a “champion” of ethics reform and frequently touts his influence in Albany and his closeness to Mr. Silver. Did Mr. Weisenberg not know this was going on, or did he just not care? While Mr. Silver consulted the state comptroller’s and attorney general’s office, was Mr. Weisenberg in the dark, or was he also consulted? Since he didn’t come forward, did he just chalk it up to business as usual in Albany—just like he did when confronted with casting votes for other assemblymen and allowing other assemblymen to cast votes for him? Does Democratic Assemblyman Weisenberg buy into this system of legal shenanigans? Isn’t it easy to make terrible things legal when your job is writing the laws? Is this the “accountable and transparent state government” that Assemblyman Weisenberg and his Democratic allies believe New Yorkers deserve?
Our politicians aren’t our rulers, they’re our employees. They work for us. We can do better. We must do better. There is no place for any of this behavior in our state. Harassment, cover-up, corruption—none of it is acceptable. All of it must be brought to the public and everyone involved should resign. Absent voluntary resignation, voters should send them home in November. We deserve an accountable and transparent state government, and the first step down that path is voting secretive and unaccountable politicians out of office.
Dr. Sussman has been a trustee on the Lawrence District school board for 18 years. He is the Republican and Conservative candidate for New York State’s 20th Assembly District.