ALBANY — Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez has declined to testify in an investigation being conducted by the state ethics commission into claims that he sexually harassed four former aides and the Legislature’s response to those allegations.
On his lawyer’s advice, Mr. Lopez also does not plan to testify in a parallel inquiry being conducted by a special prosecutor. Mr. Lopez’s lawyer, Gerald B. Lefcourt, said he had advised the assemblyman, who is also a former Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman, not to testify in either inquiry because of the criminal investigation.
“Nobody to our knowledge reported a crime, but nevertheless witnesses are being interviewed by assistant district attorneys as well as JCOPE people, together,” Mr. Lefcourt said, referring to the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics. “Until we know what it is the district attorney is looking at specifically, my advice is to supply all the information we can short of having Mr. Lopez testify, until we know where this is going, if it’s going anywhere.”
In the last three or four weeks, Mr. Lopez received a commission subpoena for his testimony, but he has not been asked to testify by the special prosecutor’s office. He has provided documents to investigators, his lawyer said.
John Milgrim, a spokesman for the ethics commission, declined to comment. A spokesman for the special prosecutor, District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. of Staten Island, could not be immediately reached.
Mr. Lopez, who has been battling illness, was not in the Capitol for the legislative session on Thursday, and his office referred questions to Mr. Lefcourt.
The sexual harassment scandal began last summer, after the State Assembly released a letter censuring Mr. Lopez, indicating that he had verbally harassed, groped and kissed two of his staff members. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, said at the time that the Assembly had “zero tolerance” for such behavior. The New York Times later reported that Mr. Silver had previously authorized a confidential payment of $103,080 to settle earlier allegations against Mr. Lopez by two other women.
Mr. Lopez, who at the time was the county Democratic chairman as well as an assemblyman, had been one of the city’s most feared power brokers. Within several weeks, however, he had given up his party leadership post.
He was re-elected in November against only nominal opposition, but he has been stripped of his committee chairmanship, had his legislative salary cut and lost many of the benefits that would ordinarily come to a lawmaker with his seniority.
Mr. Lopez, 71, has said he did nothing wrong. “I won my district after a huge barrage of attacks and allegations,” he said this month. “I got over 90 percent, over 30,000 people voted, and I have a strong mandate to come here and represent the district.”
The investigations are examining not only Mr. Lopez’s actions toward female employees, but also the actions of the Assembly leadership in approving a confidential settlement of allegations brought by some of those workers. A judge authorized Mr. Donovan’s office last year to expand its criminal investigation by examining whether crimes were committed when public and private money was used to settle the complaints brought by two female staff members.
Mr. Donovan was named a special prosecutor after the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, recused himself, citing his political ties to Mr. Lopez.
The ethics commission has also been examining the role of the Assembly leadership in responding to the harassment allegations, but its inquiry is saddled by political intrigue. The commission is largely controlled by appointees of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, but legislative appointees effectively have veto power that can block investigative avenues.
Mr. Silver has acknowledged mistakes in his response to the initial harassment allegations, saying the first allegations of harassment should have been referred to an Assembly ethics committee. In the future, he has said, the Assembly “should not agree to a confidential settlement.”
Source: NY Times