For good-government and women’s groups, the Vito Lopez sexual harassment case and cover-up is just the latest in a long line of scandals involving state politicians.
And whether anything will change, they said, remains to be seen.
But they say it’s clear that sexual harassment isn’t taken as seriously as it should be by state leaders, that it has been a long-standing problem in state government and that more attention to the problem is needed.
“This is something that has been going on for years,” said Marcia Pappas, president of the New York state chapter of the National Organization for Women. “Dozens and dozens of cases are swept under the rug.” The unusually loud outcry over Lopez, she said, has brought his alleged misconduct out into the open.
“Every legislator is an employer,” said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the New York chapter of the League of Women Voters. “They are responsible for making sure their offices are not hostile workplaces. From our perspective, as a government reform organization, there should be zero tolerance of this type of behavior, just as there would be at GE or any other business.”
Last month Lopez, a powerful Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn, lost his committee chairmanship and seniority after the Assembly Committee on Ethics and Guidance found that he violated the chamber’s sexual harassment policy. He was also banned from another leadership position, required to get additional sexual harassment training and barred from employing any staff under the age of 21 or interns.
The committee found that Lopez created a hostile workplace that included verbal and physical sexual abuse, and that his response to the allegations made by four female staff members was not credible. The female staff members accused Lopez of repeated unwelcome comments about their bodies and clothing, as well as attempts to kiss and put his hands between the legs of one of them on a trip to Atlantic City, N.J., during the summer.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, has been criticized for approving a $103,000 settlement using public money for two of Lopez’s accusers.
Calls for investigation
In August, Common Cause New York and the New York City chapter of NOW filed a joint complaint with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics — JCOPE — alleging that Lopez, Silver, members of Lopez’s staff, and other members of the state Assembly had violated Public Officers Law, and asking the commission to fully investigate.
“Sexual harassment is illegal and revelations that it was handled secretly to protect a powerful member of the Legislature in 2012 in Albany are shocking,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause, in a statement. “In a democracy, government must be held accountable to protect all of the state’s residents. … JCOPE must investigate the extent of Lopez’s misconduct, every thwarted attempt to report it, and the failure of process which resulted in that conduct being hidden, tacitly accepted and allowed to continue.”
Pappas said the state should take a look at its sexual harassment policies, and determine whether stricter rules are needed. But she noted that the state has sexual harassment policies on the books, and said the real problem may lie in enforcement and punishment. “If we’re going to take this issue seriously, we need to look not just as policies, but at the punishment and the enforcement,” she said. “Are they strong enough to deter people?”
“How leaders behave in the workplace starts at the top, and if leaders are not going to take sexual harassment seriously, then you are going to have people who are just going to wink and nod at it,” Pappas said. “There’s a growing awareness of sexual harassment, but we still live in a society that sanctions violence against women. There’s not enough of an outcry coming from people in power to make them change.”
Bartoletti suggested that increasing the number of female legislators and requiring more education for legislators and staffers on sexual harassment could help reduce the problem of sexual harassment. She said that it’s highly unusual for the Assembly Committee on Ethics and Guidance to make a finding against a member of the Assembly, and the fact that it chose to discipline Lopez suggests that his behavior was so bad it couldn’t be ignored.
Good government groups are waiting to see how seriously the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which was created last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to regulate the executive and legislative branches, as well as lobbying, takes the Lopez case. But they expressed skepticism about JCOPE’s willingness to fully investigate misconduct in the Lopez case. Last week the New York Times reported that JCOPE had decided not to investigate Silver’s use of public money, and would restrict its focus to Lopez.
“We don’t know how deeply they’re going to investigate,” said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Mahoney said he hoped that the Lopez case would help bring more attention to the problem of sexual harassment. “We hope it will make people more conscious of proper behavior, and more willing to speak up when they witness this sort of thing going on,” he said.
Pappas wondered whether JCOPE could really conduct an objective investigation, given the fact that eight of its 14 members are appointed by legislative leaders; Silver himself appointed three members.
Silver has said he regrets making the secret deal with the two women.
Pappas said that it was good that Silver had admitted making a mistake, but added, “what I always say is that actions speak louder than words. … Our goal is to say, ‘You made the wrong decision here. What are you going to do about it now, and what are you going to do about it in the future?’ ”
Lopez has denied the accusations and refused to step down. He’s up for re-election in November, and is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
On Friday, a state judge ordered a special prosecutor, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, to investigate the private settlement approved by Silver, in addition to the sexual harassment claims against Lopez.
Bartoletti compared the Lopez scandal to the one that led to the downfall of Hiram Monserrate, the former New York state senator who was expelled by the Senate in 2010 in connection with a misdemeanor assault conviction that stemmed from charges that he beat and slashed his girlfriend. Like Monserrate, Lopez is now “persona non grata” among his colleagues in the Assembly; Bartoletti predicted that Lopez would resign after winning re-election.
There have been other notable scandals in state government in recent years.
In 2003, Michael Boxley, former chief counsel to Silver, pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct after a legislative aide accused him of rape. It wasn’t the first time Boxley’s sexual behavior had come under scrutiny: In 2001 the state Assembly closed an inquiry into an alleged sexual assault by Boxley against a woman without taking disciplinary action.
Not long after Boxley’s conviction, former Albany County District Attorney Paul Clyne issued a report blasting the internship program at the Capitol, saying he would never let his daughter become an intern. The report led to some reforms, such as an end to fraternization between legislators and interns outside of work.
When David Paterson became governor after Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal in 2008, he held a press conference acknowledging that he had extramarital affairs with a number of women while a state senator. He later found himself embroiled in a scandal stemming from his involvement in a top aide’s domestic violence case; Paterson acknowledged contacting the woman who made the domestic violence complaint, and though no evidence of witness tampering was ever found, the scandal contributed to the former governor’s political downfall.