OP/ED New York Dems Need to Right the Ship

Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Vito Lopez accused of sexual harassment

On August 24 the New York State Assembly Committee on Ethics and Guidance announced that Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the powerful Brooklyn Democratic boss, had been removed as chairman of the Housing Committee in the Assembly, stripped of his seniority and forced to undergo sexual harassment training after an investigation into allegations that he sexually harassed two legislative employees beginning in June of this year. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in a letter sent to Lopez, stated, “The bi-partisan Committee on Ethics and Guidance today delivered to me a report signed by all eight of its members, finding that Assembly Member Vito Lopez violated the Assembly’s sexual harassment policy. I have reviewed the report and will fully implement its recommendations. The members of the committee have fulfilled their obligation to independently and thoroughly review these allegations, and I thank them for their hard work.” Silver’s letter gave details of the two workers who said Lopez harassed them. The committee told Lopez the credible allegations made by the two women included:

That there were 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;

That you required one of the complainants to take a trip with you to Atlantic City in July 2012, and that you attempted to kiss her, that she struggled to fend you off before you stopped, and that on the drive back from Atlantic City you again put your hand between her legs; and

That other incidents of unwelcome physical conduct occurred, including holding one complainant’s hand and playing with her hair.

The committee also reported not buying Lopez’s response to the women’s allegations that they were required to write him letters about “how much they loved their jobs” and cared about their boss—and that he chastised them for not being heartfelt enough in those communications.

Among the sanctions approved by the Speaker were: removing Lopez as Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Housing, and banning him from any other committee chairmanship or leadership position; reducing Lopez’s staff allocation through attrition to the amount reserved for a first term member and forfeiting his seniority in the Assembly; requiring the Assemblyman to undergo supplemental sexual harassment training; and prohibiting Lopez from employing staff under 21 years old or interns in his Assembly offices.

Silver continued, “The Assembly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and we are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for all our employees. The Committee on Ethics and Guidance has been diligent in thoroughly and fairly investigating the allegations made in this case and I will immediately implement its recommendations.”

Minutes after the announcement Lincoln Restler, Democratic State Committee Member in the 50th Assembly District, called on Lopez to step down.

“Given the severity of these allegations, which the New York Assembly has called ‘credible,’ Vito Lopez should immediately resign as Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman. I hope all responsible elected officials in Brooklyn will join me in calling for this action. It is clear we need a full and comprehensive investigation into whether this was a regular pattern of behavior in Vito Lopez’s office.”

A few days later Lopez announced he would not seek re-election as head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. So, in a few weeks Brooklyn will have a new party chairman.

Lopez has for years had enormous power over the political nomination process since he became Brooklyn Democratic Party Leader in 2005, when Clarence Norman, then the Party Leader, was convicted of, and jailed for, violating New York election law and falsifying business records.

As party leader, Lopez had a say in placement of some of the most powerful people in New York government. When City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was seeking her position in 2005, she won because Lopez delivered her the Brooklyn delegation over former Council Member and current Public Advocate Bill De Blasio.

Lopez has had a long political war with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. He recently ran Council Member Erik M. Dilan, son of State Senator Martin M. Dilan, a close ally of Lopez, because Velazquez refused to kiss Lopez’s political ring. Dilan was soundly defeated by Velazquez.

On September 19, a new Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman will be elected. Frank Seddio is considered the frontrunner. Another strong presence in the race is district leader Jo Anne Simon, who I believe would be a great choice and show a clear, new direction for the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

Lopez’s decision not to run for re-election has not stopped him from trying to influence who his successor will be. City & State reporter Aaron Short reported that Lopez has been making calls on behalf of Seddio, a longtime friend and the current president of the powerful Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, in Canarsie, where Lopez got his start.

In 2007, Seddio had to resign as a surrogate judge just 131 days into his 14-year term, after ethics violations.

When Lopez became the Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman, one of the first things he did was change legislative rules to ensure a buffer of power; one of those changes was instituting 11 new at-large district leaders, making certain that he would always have the votes to get his agendas passed.

On September 4, a defiant Lopez put out a statement accusing Democrats calling for his removal from the Assembly of “destroying my credibility,” and vowing not to be railroaded from office.

“I will not capitulate to those self serving tactics and demands,” Lopez said in his letter.

Assembly Speaker Silver, who admitted he allowed a secret $135,000 settlement for two Lopez staffers who claimed they were sexually harassed earlier in the year, said he would do all he could to pressure Lopez to resign.

The Speaker said he called Lopez to ask him to resign from the Assembly seat he’s held for almost 30 years, but Lopez says he has no intention of resigning.

Lopez said he still has a strong following in Brooklyn’s 53rd Assembly District and continues to claim that he is the victim of a political smear campaign.

“In the last 10 days there have been a series of allegations that are politically motivated, as well as unethical or illegal leaks about confidential agreements and statements with the principal motive of destroying my credibility and election options,” Lopez said in his rebuttal.

If Lopez doesn’t resign, Silver said, it will likely take a criminal conviction before lawmakers could remove him on harassment charges.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer said he told Silver that Lopez should be kicked out if he doesn’t quit. “He should be out of office. O-U-T! N-O-W!” said Schumer.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan has been appointed special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal charges against Lopez. Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes recused himself due to his close political ties to Lopez.

Accusations against Speaker Silver, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli have been flying, saying they conspired to keep the payoff to the two women who made the harassment charges earlier in the year secret.

I believe Schneiderman and DiNapoli  were guilty of helping Silver cover up this case. Silver wanted the payment of taxpayer money hidden from voters, and Schneiderman and DiNapoli staff helped get it done. E-mail uncovered by the Daily News from Assembly lawyers to deputies of the Attorney General and the Comptroller  described the payoff as a “Confidential Settlement Document” and said: “After several conversations with both of you and extensive mediation/negotiations, we appear to have successfully concluded our negotiations.” It listed the agreed payments that included $32,000 from Lopez.

They also added confidentiality agreements that said neither side, absent a subpoena, could, “discuss or make any statement of any sort or any terms of this Agreement with any other person or entity.”

I believe that makes the payment hush money. This counters claims that the Comptroller and Attorney General were not directly involved in what Silver concedes was a mistaken effort to hide the payment.

DiNapoli and Schneiderman failed to do their duty, and protected Lopez and Silver.

Now a special prosecutor and the state ethics panel has taken the case. This is an opportunity to expose corruption that has tarnished the New York Democratic Party for decades. We need our faith restored that our elected officials understand that they work for us. It is vital that Govenor Cuomo show leadership, and go after anyone who betrays our trust. And finally this is a big moment for Lopez’s protégé, Council Member Steve Levin. Many feel this is Levin’s chance to cut his political ties to Lopez. I know many activists and residents who personally like Levin, but his alliance with Lopez has prevented them from supporting him.

It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Still on Fire!