After being soundly criticized for confidentially settling a sexual harassment allegation against Assemblyman Vito Lopez earlier this year, Assembly Speaker Shelly Speaker admitted he was wrong and vowed for a more transparent process going forward. However, that doesn’t seem to be enough for the state’s good government groups, and two of them, Common Cause and the local chapter of National Organization for Women, are filing an joint complaint with JCOPE, Albany’s new ethics panel.
JCOPE, which Mr. Cuomo helped to create and has championed, may face its first real test with how it handles Mr. Lopez’s situation. Mr. Lopez has denied any wrongdoing, but with over $100,000 in taxpayer funds going towards silencing what may have been a very serious allegation, there is the potential for embarrassing details to emerge as more facts are presented. Especially given the severity of two later sexual harassment claims against Mr. Lopez, which led to his downfall as the chair of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party.
Common Cause’s Susan Lerner released the following statement announcing the move:
“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. In a democracy, government must be held accountable to protect all of the state’s residents, yet only in the last week has the Assembly acted to protect its female employees based on the information provided by the very brave women who, refusing to accept Vito Lopez’s sexual misconduct, reported it to the relevant authorities. 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. Voters require a public airing of the facts. JCOPE is the appropriate entity to investigate, inform the public of what actually happened and hold the responsible individuals and entities accountable.”
While, Sonia Ossorio, President of NOW NYC, added:
“Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s reported acts of sexual harassment against numerous employees make him entirely unfit to serve the public in any capacity. Just as disturbing is Speaker Silver’s cover-up of Lopez’s earlier transgressions, which demonstrate an ongoing acceptance and tolerance for sexual harassment. It is absolutely unacceptable that in the hallowed halls of government, women demanding the fair and equal treatment to which they are entitled under the law should be met with secrecy and muzzled. JCOPE must investigate the full extent to which members of the Assembly staff, and of Mr. Lopez’s former and current staff, were aware of his conduct, and the Speaker’s role in burying these egregious charges. We will not allow the New York State Assembly to disregard women’s rights.”
A third good government group, Citizens Union, is also calling on JCOPE to do a thorough investigation. With Governor Andrew Cuomo chiming in as well, the chorus appears to be building.