Opinion: Any good he did can’t exonerate Vito Lopez

Disgraced former Assemblyman Vito Lopez is dead, but there’s at least one man willing to shed a public tear. Frank Seddio, Lopez’s successor as the boss of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, released a statement today praising Lopez’s long career as a housing advocate. It ended with a request for clemency:

“As he faces the judgment on the value of his life, my hope is that all the good work he did will outweigh the unfortunate way in which his career ended,” Seddio wrote.

To hear Seddio tell it, one would almost imagine that an outside force ended Lopez’s career, as opposed to his multiple “unfortunate” acts of sexual harassment. As if Lopez himself were not responsible for his very real crimes, and all the supposed “good” he did in the world can exonerate him.

At the risk of dancing on a dead man’s grave, let me correct the record one last time.

“Sexual harassment” isn’t a vivid enough description of the violence Vito Lopez committed against the women on his staff. It gives the dull impression of an off-color lewd comment, as opposed to the terror of being locked in a car with a 200-plus-pound man as he forces his hand between your thighs. It fails to communicate the jaw-dropping impunity with which Lopez inflicted daily acts of degradation and disrespect, secure in the knowledge that his victims had no recourse with their employer, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, currently on trial for corruption. And it cannot begin to describe the continued insult of being called a liar by Lopez’s lawyer even after the former assemblyman settled a lawsuit for half a million dollars.

In the end, Lopez paid just $35,000 out of his own pocket to his second set of victims. Taxpayers forked over the remaining $535,000 to cover Silver’s liability. Although he also paid $103,800 to his first set of victims, Lopez goes to his grave owing the state an additional $330,000 in fines, which Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is still suing for. 

And it’s not as if Lopez didn’t have the cash. As of January, Lopez spent $177,724 on legal fees, out of a total $591,891 in his campaign account, to fight two women who earned less than $60,000 each. One could argue, as good government advocates do, that campaign cash should not be used for legal fees or settlement money. But as we now know from the Silver trial, if you’re one of the most powerful people in politics for 30 years you can really rake it in if you play your cards right. Is it possible that Lopez’s only crime was abusing women? Unlikely.

Lopez’s lawyer wants us to remember a man who stood up for the poor, while Frank Carone, the law chairman for the party organization, will always think of him as “a very loving, generous guy.” Instead, New Yorkers should remember a man who felt systematically entitled to rob women of their dignity, and right up until his death resisted paying restitution for his crimes, the full extent of which remain unaccounted for.

Nothing will change that ugly truth.

Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. Find her on Twitter @agrenell.