Ethics panel report remains secret

Feb 15, 2013

A government reform group is calling for a state ethics panel report to be made public, one day after the panel investigating charges against Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) sent a report to the legislative ethics committee.

Allegations against Lopez were made public by the Assembly last summer, when he was accused of sexually harassing two female staffers and censured.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver later admitted that it was not the first time Lopez had been in trouble on sexual harassment charges. Earlier in 2012, Silver had authorized a secret payout to two other alleged victims of Lopez.

Silver, in an interview earlier this month with New York State Public Radio, says he knows concealing the payments was wrong. But says he believed at the time that he acted in the “best interest” of  the alleged victims, who had sought privacy. Silver says he made a mistake, but it was a political one.   

“I did not make an ethical mistake, as far as I’m concerned," said Silver.

The probe by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics looked at the accusations against Lopez, and also investigated Silver’s role in trying to mediate the situations. The ethics panel is run by appointees of Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate leaders, and Silver, the Assembly speaker. Under law, it is not allowed to make the final report public. The ethics commission instead referred the report to the Legislature’s Joint Ethics Panel.

A spokesman for Silver says he’s “confident that the commission found no legal or ethical violation by Speaker Silver or his staff.”

The legislature’s Ethics Panel now has 45 days to act. It can keep the report secret for the entire month and half.

Sue Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause New York, says there’s no reason why the legislature’s ethics panel cannot act much sooner.

“To wait for 45 days in this situation would concern us,” said Lerner. “We believe they should thoroughly review the report quickly, take whatever action they are going to take, and make the report public.”  

Silver is also urging that the report be released.

Common Cause, along with the National Organization for Women, asked the state ethics panel to conduct a wider probe of sexual harassment and other possible misconduct in the Assembly, as well as the Assembly leadership’s response to any allegations.

“How does the Assembly handle these sorts of complaints, was this part of a pattern?” Lerner asked. “The women who work in government deserve to know that those questions have been answered.”

They have not heard back. Under the rules, the ethics panel is also constrained from confirming or denying that a probe is underway.

Vito Lopez still holds his Assembly seat. He resigned another post as Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman last fall, but he won reelection to the Assembly in November, and he’s currently serving a two-year term.  Lopez has been stripped of his committee chairmanship, and any extra stipends that came with it.