Assembly speaker apologizes for handling of sex case

After a New York assemblyman resigned Monday over claims of serial sexual harassment of female staff

After a New York assemblyman resigned Monday over claims of serial sexual harassment of female staffers, attention turned to whether powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should continue his leadership despite an extraordinary apology for mishandling of the case.

“The degradation and emotional duress endured by the women identified in the report, who were harassed while they served in the Assembly, weighs heavily upon me,” Silver said Monday, often referring to notes to respond to dozens of questions from reporters.

He said he championed the Assembly’s policy for sexual harassment complaints against members. But last year he sidestepped the more public process to handle the first allegations against Vito Lopez in a $103,000 secret settlement. Silver said he did that because, at the time, he thought the victims wanted it handled through mediation to protect their privacy.

Investigations and the women’s attorney said that wasn’t true and that Silver, who handled the second set of accusations through the established ethics committee procedure, was more interested in protecting the Assembly.

“I accept this criticism,” Silver said Monday in his usual measured monotone. “Mistakes were made. I deeply regret them … the responsibility for the mistakes that were made in handling the original complaint rests solely with me.”

Silver said he first learned of the still-unproven accusations against Lopez last summer, although the allegations include years of claims involving staffers who worked in Lopez’s Brooklyn and Albany offices.

“I had no inkling,” Silver said. He said he never considered resigning his leadership position.

The Assembly’s Democratic majority held a closed-door session Monday to decide on reforms to avoid more sexual harassment by members.

A challenge to Silver’s leadership was never discussed in the closed-door meeting, Democrats said. The focus was on Lopez and new policies and laws. That’s what followed previous sexual harassment and misconduct scandals in the Assembly under Silver.

“As a mother and as a grandmother, it’s an important time to look at a bad actor and make sure people are comfortable going forward,” said Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, a Hudson Valley Democrat, in an interview. As with the few other Democrats who would comment, they wouldn’t dwell on Silver’s role.

“I think he has condemned himself and he realizes there has to be some reformation,” Gunther said.

One of the Legislature’s newest female members in the other chamber, Democratic Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, said “legislators should be held to a higher standard.

“People like Vito Lopez shouldn’t have been allowed to go on as long as he did,” Tkaczyk said.

Reports released last week by a special prosecutor and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics detailed claims against Lopez. Women claimed he forced his hand up their legs, asked some to touch his cancerous tumors and message his hand, tried to coerce them to share a hotel room, and told them to dress and act more flirtatiously, and told them to write him glowing, chatty notes he later tried to use to dispel accusations.

But both reports also cited failures and mistakes by Silver and his top staffers.

“The chief concern of those in the Assembly was mitigating the Assembly’s damages,” Special Prosecutor Daniel Donovan said in his report released last week. “That goal outweighed any interest in investigating or disciplining Assembly Member Lopez or in preventing similar occurrences.”

Silver had planned to begin a rare effort to expel Lopez by allowing the full Assembly to consider sanctions based on the full reports. That could have included action against Silver.

But Silver ended that plan with Lopez’s resignation.

Meanwhile, newspaper editorial boards from The New York Times to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and some women’s group called on Silver to resign or face a public vote on the leadership post he’s held since 1994.

“I don’t see that happening,” Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said Monday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, head of the state Democratic party, said Monday that although he called for Lopez to resign over unproven allegations which Lopez denies, it isn’t his place to call for Silver to step down over actions Silver has already admitted. Cuomo said Silver’s actions aren’t as bad as the allegations of sexual harassment leveled at Lopez.

“The speaker mishandled the complaint and the situation,” Cuomo said. “It is different, however, than what Vito Lopez did, which was actually be the person who was abusing women, right? One is you didn’t handle it well, the other is you actually committed the act.”

The Lopez case shows there is a question of how well the Legislature can police itself, said Susan Lerner of Common Cause.

“What assurances do we have,” she asked, “that a robust sexual harassment policy will be followed?”

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