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Scandal tests the power of new ethics panel

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WBFO News photo

The state’s ethics board held a closed door meeting Tuesday and is believed to be discussing whether to investigate Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez and possibly the Assembly Speaker, over a sexual harassment scandal.

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 Speaker 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 Governor 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, 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 pay out to was a “mistake”, he says he was only doing so 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 Assemblyman Lopez.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.