UPDATE: Ethics panel emerges after possible meeting on sexual harassment case

The state’s government ethics panel emerged after a two-hour, closed-door meeting without commenting

The state’s government ethics panel emerged after a two-hour, closed-door meeting without commenting on whether it will investigate a sexual harassment scandal in the Assembly.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics met in a special session today after Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested in a news conference that the board should look into a private settlement using $103,000 in public money. That settled sexual harassment claims against Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

Lopez denies he sexually harassed anyone.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had agreed to the once-secret settlement that he said was requested by the two former Lopez staff members who made the accusations.

Silver says he won’t approve any more secret settlements because they conflict with the need for transparency in government.

Under the commission’s complex rules, at least one of Silver’s three appointees or Democratic leader Sen. John Sampson’s appointee would have to approve the sexual harassment investigation. Otherwise, the commission’s rules allow for an effective veto of an investigation.

Silver, however, has said he welcomes the investigation. He said last week that he was wrong to enter into the secret settlement in June, even though he said the accusers requested it to help protect their privacy. He now says such deals conflict with the transparency needed in government.

The private settlement became public Aug. 24, when the Assembly ethics committee censured Lopez on sexual harassment charges involving two female staffers in July. Silver stripped Lopez of his leadership position and its stipend. On Monday, Silver said he has asked Lopez to resign and will seek other measures to expel him from the Assembly.

Lopez has denied sexually harassing anyone. Silver said Monday that Lopez refused a request to resign.

Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said Tuesday that Lopez appears to have violated the state Public Officers Law over his conduct with the staffers.

“It’s a delicate personnel matter, but they should find out exactly what happened, why it happened, and issue their remedy,” Bartoletti said. “This is JCOPE’s first big challenge.”

Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group said the commission must issue a detailed report so any systemic problems can be corrected. JCOPE has been criticized in its first year of operation as being secretive, including choosing to follow only the spirit of the state Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law.

“We hope to see whatever JCOPE comes out with, they are detailed and transparent about what the findings are,” Mahoney said. “A sentence or two will not really illuminate things much.”

Silver said he’s never entered into any other secret agreement to end sexual harassment charges. The Senate’s Republican majority and the governor’s office said they have never entered into any such private settlements.

Another pending, high-profile ethics case over the last couple weeks that JCOPE could have been considering Tuesday was one involving state Sen. Shirley Huntley. The Queens Democrat was indicted on charges of conspiracy in the latest case involving a wide-ranging probe of pork-barrel grants distributed by legislators.

Huntley has denied the charge by Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman with Democratic Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, calling it a politically motivated, trumped-up effort to disrupt her Democratic primary Sept. 13.

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