The state ethics board held a closed door meeting Tuesday. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, is believed to be discussing whether to investigate Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, and possibly the Assembly Speaker, over a sexual harassment scandal.
The commission held a special two hour long closed-door meeting, called just days after Governor Andrew Cuomo asked for an investigation of sexual harassment charges against Lopez.
Lopez was censured by the Assembly Ethics Committee, which ordered him stripped of his committee chairmanship and all extra stipends for allegedly sexually harassing two female staffers. Before those incidents, though, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver agreed to pay a secret $103,000 settlement to previous alleged victims of Lopez. The speaker has since apologized for keeping the payout quiet.
After the private meeting, JCOPE Commissioner Patrick Bulgaro, who was appointed by Silver, was tightlipped.
“Regrettably, I’ve got nothing to say,” said Bulgaro. “No comment.”
Under the ethics panel rules, commissioners can neither confirm nor deny that a probe has been launched, and must keep all details of the investigation secret until a final report is issued.
Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, says the Assembly’s sexual harassment scandal presents the first true test for the fledgling ethics commission, created by Cuomo and lawmakers last year. She says the charges against Lopez, if true, violate the law.
“From what I can gather, from looking at their bylaws, this is a violation of the public officers’ law,” Bartoletti said. “This is a test of how they handle this.”
And Bartoletti says the circumstances surrounding the secret $103,000 settlement using taxpayer money need to be “explored further.”
Speaker Silver is at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, leading the New York delegation. Silver in recent days has called upon Lopez to resign his Assembly seat. The speaker says while he realizes the confidentiality clause in the payout was a “mistake,” he says he was only trying to protect the privacy of the alleged victims.
“Perhaps we overweighed the idea of privacy,” Silver said. “This was not a cover-up as such, this was a pre-litigation settlement.”
In addition to a possible state ethics commission probe, the Staten Island District Attorney, Dan Donovan, who has be chosen to serve as a special prosecutor in the case, has begun a criminal investigation into the charges against Lopez.