Less than two weeks ago, Assemblyman Vito Lopez and Speaker Sheldon Silver were among the two most powerful men in New York state politics. Now, a sexual harassment scandal that has dethroned the Brooklyn Democratic boss is weakening Silver, who has been untouchable in the Capitol for more than a decade.
As the drumbeat for Lopez’s resignation grows louder, including a request from Silver himself, it is unclear whether he will able to hold onto his Assembly seat. And the scandal could permanently damage Silver’s standing in the state’s capitol—or even topple the mighty speaker.
THE FALL OF VITO
Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s personal mantra for decades has been to “help others,” but apparently he couldn’t stop from “helping” himself.
The powerful Brooklyn legislator stands accused of sexually harassing several former female employees this year.
Two women alleged Lopez, 71, made “unwelcome verbal and physical contact” toward them between early June and mid-July.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver referred their claims to the Assembly’s Ethics Committee, which recommended Lopez lose his coveted Housing Committee chairmanship. Then Silver made the allegations public on Aug. 24, stripped Lopez of his leadership post and reduced his salary and staff. Lopez vehemently denied the charges, but four days later he voluntarily agreed not to seek re-election as Brooklyn’s Democratic Party chairman, citing “enormous emotional pressures on my family and close friends.”
Two additional women, whom Lopez allegedly harassed in the past year, sought $1.2 million in damages from the Assembly. Silver negotiated that figure down to $103,080 in taxpayer funds, consulting with the state Attorney General’s and state Comptroller’s offices throughout the process before signing off on the confidential settlement. According to several reports, the women also received unknown benefits and Lopez paid out an additional $32,000, though it is not clear whether that money came out of his personal account, campaign treasury or another source.
Silver did not send those complaints to the Ethics Committee, prompting harsh criticism from state officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who called for the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to investigate Lopez’s misconduct and Silver’s handling of the matter.
Meanwhile, two federal investigations are probing Lopez’s ties to the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), a nonprofit social services organization he founded. A city-run probe into the organization that was completed last year led to the resignation of its Lopez-loyalist CEO, Christiana Fisher.
Lopez has not been accused of any wrongdoing in any of the inquiries.
Several officials across the city and state, who said they had expected that a federal indictment would bring down Lopez, were startled that sexual harassment charges had sunk him instead.
Neighborhood sources, however, said Lopez’s actions did not come as a surprise.
“It’s not shocking,” said one Brooklyn political source, who asked to remain nameless for fear of damage to his career. “Everybody knows that he was hitting on women left and right… but I don’t think anybody realized he would be forcing himself onto women.”
A BOSS UNMADE
Lopez joined the Assembly in 1984, winning election with the support of Democratic leaders, including his mentor, then party chairman Meade Esposito, and community members active in RBSCC.
He used his elected position to help build housing projects throughout Bushwick, which had been ravaged by arson, poverty and crime, and to craft legislation preserving affordable units throughout the city. Lopez eventually ascended to the chairmanship of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, a position that enabled him to direct millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to RBSCC in housing contracts and youth and senior programs.
Lopez’s political beneficence earned the loyalty of constituents who kept re-electing him every two years, and his power grew throughout Brooklyn when he secured the county’s Democratic Party chairmanship in 2005 after his predecessor, Clarence Norman, was found guilty of violating election law.
Since then, Lopez has become one of the most powerful leaders in the state.
And though there have long been rumblings about his conduct, Lopez has largely succeeded in keeping his vices close to the vest.
“A lot of people knew about him and his girlfriends and all his women,” said one community leader, who asked not to be identified out of concern of reprisal. “In order to work with him you had to pay homage to him and do what he wanted to him. People in the area were not that shocked; they’re just surprised it took so long.”
Throughout his career Lopez dated several employees of Ridgewood Bushwick, including Fisher, RBSCC’s former CEO and Lopez’s campaign treasurer, and the group’s current housing director, Angela Battaglia, who has been his girlfriend for nearly 30 years. He remains separated from his estranged wife, Joan Lopez, with whom he has two adult daughters.
Reports indicate that Lopez fostered an uncomfortable culture inside his legislative and district offices. Several former staffers told The New York Times and the New York Post that Lopez often commented about their clothes, suggesting they wear turtlenecks and avoid bras, and made intrusive remarks about their sex lives, as well as asking them to accompany him on overnight trips.
One former staffer, who insisted on anonymity because she claimed she was a target of Lopez’s advances, said she had no doubt that he groped staff members.
“It happened,” she said. “We had heard about it for weeks.”
Baruch College School of Public Affairs professor Nicole Marwell, who wrote the book Bargaining for Brooklyn about nonprofits in Queens and Brooklyn, was struck by a section of the complaint detailing how Lopez made his staffers write letters to him saying how much they loved him and their jobs and then berated his employees for not being effusive enough in their praise.
“It’s that kind of ego stuff that I expect from Vito, and it’s the piece that rings truest,” Marwell said. “He takes up a lot of space in the room. He has a sense of entitlement, which comes by the sense that he’s worked hard for it. It doesn’t excuse it, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s not that he thinks he’s above the law, but that he thinks he can do things that are legal but not necessarily appropriate, with impunity, in certain kinds of social settings.”
CLOUD OVER SILVER
The revelation that Lopez was the subject of two separate sexual harassment cases was explosive.
And in Albany, where secrecy is almost written into the law, the unexpected, graphic rebuke of Lopez from Silver was extraordinary.
Silver’s letter described the allegations against Lopez in lurid detail, citing “multiple incidents of unwelcome physical conduct toward one complainant, wherein you put your hand on her leg, she removed your hand, and you then put your hand between her upper thighs, putting your hand as far up between her legs as you could go.”
The Assembly Ethics Commission made its censure decision after three secret meetings conducted with atypical speed during the summer months.
“I was told by a member they were there all summer, and they were meeting in secret to the point where one member who was going up couldn’t even tell his chief of staff,” said one Albany insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to damage a relationship with the speaker. “How do you keep a secret like that in Albany?”
Some viewed Silver’s blunt admonishment of Lopez as an angry response to Lopez’s repeating a behavior that Silver had already helped to cover-up in a prior settlement—an agreement that was never supposed to come out into the open.
So when new harassment allegations surfaced, Silver publicly excoriated Lopez, and then pivoted to defend himself against the massive of wave of public criticism that has since been mounting in response to the way the speaker kept the first settlement under wraps.
By midweek public officials had already started writing off Lopez’s political career, but the scandal’s effect on Silver remains unclear.
In a statement, the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter’s president, Sonia Ossorio, called Silver’s actions a “cover-up” that “muzzled” the women involved and showed “an ongoing acceptance and tolerance for sexual harassment.”
On Aug. 28, Silver, in a rare mea culpa, admitted he had made a mistake in his handling of the settlement. The next day, his press office publicly traded barbs with one of the victim’s attorneys, Gloria Allred.
The result was a stunning change of fortune for Silver.
The speaker has largely been able to avoid the rash of scandals that have plagued Albany in recent years. But Silver’s recent missteps have placed him squarely in the crosshairs of JCOPE.
One person with knowledge of the state ethics investigation believes Silver may have broken the Public Officers Law.
“If the decision to do this was calculated to hide and protect Vito then that’s corrupt, and it would be a matter to be looked into,” the source said. “If someone was just being an idiot, then being an idiot is protected under state law.”
But the commission, which has six Cuomo appointees on its fourteen-member panel, could be a tool to bring the speaker further under the governor’s control.
“The curious irony is that the speaker having to go before JCOPE means that Shelly’s fate is in the governor’s hands,” said an Albany insider.
Lopez isn’t waiting around for the Ethics Commission’s findings to flex his political muscle and defend his legacy in Brooklyn.
Although Lopez had hoped to hold onto his party chairmanship in the wake of the scandal, members of the powerful Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club where he got his start convinced him it would have been unwise.
But Lopez has been making calls on behalf of Frank Seddio, a longtime friend and the club’s current president, who hopes to succeed him as chair.
Multiple sources confirmed that Seddio has the votes lined up among district leaders to become the county’s next party leader. If he wins the seat he will have to give up a run for City Council, as party rules prohibit city officeholders from simultaneously serving as chairpersons.
“A week ago I wouldn’t even contemplate that this was possible,” said Seddio, who has since called on Lopez to resign his Assembly seat. “But I don’t intend to be an interim president. I hope to be out there working. My goal right now is to try to unify the party and bring everyone together.”
Several insiders believe that Lopez will fight to hold on to his seat for a myriad of reasons.
This week he has been shoring up support among Hasidic voters in Williamsburg for a district leader candidate challenging State Committeeman Lincoln Restler, one of Lopez’s most vocal critics, in the September Democratic primary.
It is widely believed that Restler wants to run against Lopez’s protégé, Councilman Steve Levin, in 2013, and Restler is making the Lopez scandal a key issue in his district leader race, but multiple sources say Williamsburg’s largest bloc of Orthodox voters, the Zalmanites, remain allied with Lopez.
Lopez may be waiting until the November election is over before stepping down, so he can name a loyalist to succeed him, such as Councilman Erik Dilan, who is term-limited in 2013. Lopez foe Councilwoman Diana Reyna, also term-limited, is reportedly contemplating a run for the seat in 2014 regardless of Lopez’s decision.
But several political sources agree that if a case is brought against him that Lopez will likely fight the charges in court to prove his innocence.
He may soon get his chance.
On Friday Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes requested a special prosecutor investigate Lopez after learning from the Ethics Committee that some of the alleged incidents occurred in Brooklyn, and Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan was assigned to the case.
Hynes declined to take the case on himself, citing his relationship with Lopez and the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s support of his re-election campaigns, which he said “had the potential to create an appearance of impropriety.”
Lopez’s attorney, Gerry Lefcourt, did not return repeated calls requesting comment.
Many Democratic Assembly members have expressed disgust at Lopez’s conduct, though most are still standing behind Silver. Some members have said, however, that they found the taxpayer-funded settlement troubling.
“Frankly I wouldn’t even think the Assembly has the authority to pay more than $100,000 for something like this,” said Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny. “What was the reason? I never thought that the Assembly can pay for something like this with public money. It’s really shocking.”
Silver’s approval of the secret payout has landed him in hot water, but so far there’s little speculation the speaker will lose his seat over the scandal.
“I don’t think [Silver's] in trouble. I think when the facts come out, it will show that the speaker did nothing wrong,” Assemblyman Joe Lentol said. “The speaker has made a decision that all matters will be referred to Ethics Committee, even when a settlement is reached.”
Lentol was less sanguine about Lopez’s future.
“There may be sufficient pressure on him to resign,” he said. “I haven’t talked with him about it, but if he calls me I would advise him to do what’s right. If he’s innocent then he should continue to fight to prove his innocence. I’m not going to ask him if he’s innocent or guilty. That’s between him and God.”
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