NEW YORK — A New York prosecutor decided Wednesday that Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s behavior toward women on his staff was “alarming” rather than criminal harassment, but lambasted Albany leaders as too interested in protecting themselves and said their secretive, back-door behavior encouraged his inappropriate conduct.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said his office did more than 50 interviews but there was no basis to conclude a chargeable offense was committed. He also found no criminal activity in the secret settling and confidentiality agreements of some of the complaints made against Lopez, but sharply criticized Albany’s handling of it.
“Resolving these complaints in this secretive manner … apparently encouraged him to continue the inappropriate conduct,” Donovan wrote.
Donovan’s report comes as Albany is rocked by federal prosecutions of corruption and bribery involved rank-and-file Democrats, though his report admonishes those at the highest levels of state government.
The once-influential Lopez lost his job as Brooklyn Democratic party boss and was stripped of his Assembly leadership role last year after the allegations emerged. Last month, he filed paperwork to run for a New York City council seat. Protesters and some politicians urged him to resign, but he refused, saying his constituents should get to decide who should represent them. They did, re-electing him in November to the seat he has held since 1984. The 71-year-old denies harassing women.
The decision not to seek criminal charges “is a just and welcome end to this sad saga,” said Lopez’s attorney Gerald Lefcourt. “We were confident there was no case from the inception.”
The prosecutor said that not every instance of unwanted sexual conduct rises to the level of a crime under New York penal law, and Lopez’s acts did not but didn’t explain why. A state Joint Commission on Public Ethics report also released Wednesday found Lopez violated the public’s trust with his actions.
According to the ethics report, many female staffers said Lopez made demeaning comments about their appearance, and they were increasingly required to spend time with him outside the office, in encounters that culminated in attempted and forced intimate contact.
“Alright, OK, good,” a woman staffer said Lopez told her while he had her rub his hand with an electric massager, according to the report. “Now it’s a deal. Stop crying. Alright, rub my hand, do my hand … Good. I like that. That means that you have to rub it longer. … Do you. … Do you mind?”
Another said she was told to go to dinner with Lopez, where he touched her under inappropriately under the table with his foot. A third said he announced at Christmas 2010 he wanted to hang mistletoe over a female employee’s desk and kiss her. She refused and Lopez became angry, and later told her he wanted to “go get drunk” with her and “turn the corner” with her, the report said.
“The investigation found that Lopez rewarded employees who tolerated his behavior or acceded to his demands with cash gifts, promotions, salary increases, and plum assignments,” the ethics report said.
Women who rejected his harassment were “punished” with poor assignments and threatened with firing. The report concludes that may be why no formal or informal complaints were made to the counsel of the Assembly Majority or Assembly Ethics Committee.
Two claims were secretly settled for $103,000, using taxpayer money, and Donovan said while it followed the normal route by which employee claims are paid, the overall method was flawed. He said Silver’s chief concern was limiting damage to the Assembly — not protecting staff from harassment.
“That goal outweighed any interest in investigating or disciplining Assembly Member Lopez or in preventing similar occurrences in the future,” the report stated.
Silver had previously said the women who complained sought to avoid having the issue become public and he agreed to protect their privacy, and regretted the deal. His office didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
Donovan’s report also criticizes the roles of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, both Democrats. Their staff had reviewed the Assembly’s private settlement, although they insist Schneiderman and DiNapoli were never advised. The report criticized the use of a confidentiality clause as contrary to the best interests of the public.
“Neither the office of the attorney general nor the comptroller’s office, agencies with knowledge of the settlement agreement and the secret payout, raised any objection to inclusion of such a confidentiality clause,” the report stated.
The report, however, states the offices were limited by longstanding policies written before Schneiderman and DiNapoli took office, “and which were strictly adhered to in this case at the expense of the public interest.”
DiNapoli said in a statement there was a need for more transparency and review for legal payments and he was working on modifying policy. Calls to the attorney were not immediately returned.
Donovan was asked to act as a special prosecutor to look into claims made by female members of the Brooklyn Democrat’s staff after Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes recused himself.
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