May 21st - 4:03 pm
As his chamber passs a version of the Dream Act, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver still fielded questions on the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal and his handling of the case.
Silver is fending off the implication that his handling of the confidential settlement negotiations was never investigated by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
The speaker today called both the JCOPE probe and concurrent criminal investigation by Staten Island DA Dan Donovan exhaustive.
“I think I was very clear yesterday on this topic. I spent two sessions totaling between eight and ten hours being interviewed on this matter. Every member of my staff. Members of the Assembly ethics committee were interviewed by JCOPE. We turned over collectively thousands of pages of documents to JCOPE,” Silver said at a news conference touting the Dream Act. ”I don’t understand how anyone can conclude there was no determination on it.”
Silver reiterated that no criminal or ethical wrongdoing was found by either investigation.
“I think it made it very clear that there are no findings of illegality in the way in which we handled the matter and the way in which we handled the allegations,” Silver said.
The longtime speaker has been called on to step down from the post by Republicans and editorial boards, but so far only one Democrat — Buffalo’s Michael Kearns — has called on him to do so. Kearns was already on the outs with Silver to begin with, having never been supported by the Assembly’s leadership.
Silver on Monday outlined a package of reform proposals for handling sexual harassment cases, including an independent investigator and a ban on confidential settlements. In his first public remarks since the JCOPE report was released last Wednesday, Silver apologized for how he handled the case.
May 21st - 12:20 pm
ICYMI: Assemblyman Mickey Kearns – now officially a man without a country since he left the Democratic conference to protest Speaker Sheldon Silver’s handling of the Vito Lopez scandal – was reluctant during a CapTon interview to suggest a replacement for the speaker, whose resignation the freshman Buffalo lawmaker is the first majority member to publicly call for.
But Kearns did say he’s confident there is someone among his former colleagues capable of taking Silver’s place without causing too much chaos – perhaps even a woman.
“Listen, I’m not here to to make a king today,” Kearns said when I asked him the “if not Silver, then who” question. “I don’t know. But all I do know is that there’s 150 members of the Assembly. There has to be someone else there who can lead the Assembly.”
“I don’t know who that person is – he or she – it would be maybe a little refreshing to have a woman speaker. I’m not here to answer that. What I’m saying here today is: People at home should call and contact their legislators and ask them why they still remain to support them. (sic) You mentioned being a caucus of one. I’d rather be in a caucus where at least I have my dignity at the end of the day, and at least I have my conscience to go home to.”
There hasn’t been a contest for speaker since 1994 when Silver, then the 49-year-old head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, succeeded Saul Weprin after he suffered a severe troke and died. But there also hasn’t been a speaker from upstate in years – other than James Tallon, of Broome County, who held the post in an acting capacity for three days in 1991 in between Mel Miller’s felony conviction and Weprin’s election.
There has never been a woman speaker. There has never been a woman leader in the state Senate, either. Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who ousted Sen. John Sampson last December, is the first woman in Albany history to lead a legislative conference. It would be truly historic if there were two women leaders in Albany serving at the same time – one of whom bumped one of the man out of that infamous room where all the deals are made.
So, if there were to be a change in leadership in the Assembly – which, as Nick and the NYT pointed out earlier today is highly unlikely – Silver’s replacement would almost certainly have to come from New York City, given the downstate dominance of the Democratic conference. And since the chamber is so seniority-driven, there aren’t many women who would even be considered contenders – maybe Deborah Glick, Cathy Nolan or Helene Weinstein?
All of them – actually, all of the female Democratic conference members – are standing by Silver, so this discussion is, of course, purely academic.
I’m not sure who – woman or man – has a sufficient power base to win the glorified popularity contest that is the speaker’s race. The black and Puerto Rican caucus would certainly be a driving force in that election, but its members often have trouble staying united.
The lack of unity and dearth of members with clout and power in the conference is a big factor when it comes to Silver’s longevity. Because, of course, you can’t beat someone with no one.
May 21st - 12:06 pm
NARAL Pro-Choice New York President Andrea Miller said this morning her group and others in a coalition have a “laser focus” on achieving the full passage of the women’s agenda despite deep-seated opposition in the state Senate.
The agenda has taken on a new dimension for its supporters, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who say the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal is an even greater impetus for passing the package. The bill language for the agenda is yet to be released.
Speaking with reporters during NARAL’s lobby day in Albany, Miller said she did not want to wade into the politics of who should be leading the state Assembly as calls mount for Speaker Sheldon Silver to step down for his handling of the confidential settlement.
“I’m not going to get into a politics question about who should be in the leadership right now,” Miller said. ”We’re really laser focused on getting the women’s equality agenda through. I think the attempts to equate the speaker with Lopez are extreme. I have concerns about that.”
But she did call for changes in how sexual harassment allegations are handled. Silver on Monday apologized for keeping the initial complaints made against Lopez a secret and proposed a ban on confidential settlements in the future.
“It would be a disservice to women’s equality agenda if there weren’t an equal commitment to making sure it gets done in the Assembly and the Legislature writ large,” she said, adding, “It shouldn’t derail over the rest of the business of this body.”
As for bill language in the agenda from the governor’s office, Miller said progress is being made on that front, but there’s still no timetable for its release.
At the heart of the controversy for the agenda is a provision that Cuomo says will codify the Roe versus Wade decision. Opponents of abortion rights contend the move would expand abortion rights to an uncomfortable degree and is unnecessary.
Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos has said he won’t hold a vote on the abortion provision and has since become a target of a NARAL radio campaign.
“As we’ve talked about before, the challenge with the reproductive health is that it has been so severely mischaracterized,” Miller said. ”It is so crystal clear that nobody can assume it does only what we want it to do.”
May 21st - 10:05 am
From Capital Tonight’s morning memo, which you can subscribe to for free on the right side of this page:
Politics, like the natural world, abhors a vacuum.
So imagine an alternate world where the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal actually forced Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to resign the job he’s held since 1994.
On this Earth-2, the factionalized fight among the 100-some-odd Democrats to form the right combination of coalitions to determine a successor would make the 2009 Senate leadership coup look like a garden party.
In other words, the chaos we’ve seen in a chamber of 63 lawmakers would be transferred to a body more than twice its size — a cataclysm that would have a devastating impact as a slew of complex issues remain under negotiation.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, naturally, stands the most to lose in such an equation as he pushes a post-budget agenda that he’ll need the powerful speaker to sign off on.
Cuomo yesterday a news conference said he didn’t equate Lopez’s alleged crimes with Silver’s office’s attempt to keep the initial sexual harassment complaints a secret.
“I believe the speaker mishandled the complaint and the situation,” Cuomo said. “It is different, however, than what Vito Lopez did, which is actually be the person who was abusing women. One is you didn’t handle it well, the other is the actual act.”
Silver, for better or worse, needs to stay in office to preside over a chamber he’s been able to skillfully keep in line for three decades now.
Yes, the speaker and the governor haven’t always gotten along since Cuomo took office in 2011.
They’ve sparred over keeping the millionaires tax and have even tried to one-up each other in news conferences and timed released of bill legislation.
But ultimately Cuomo needs stability in the state Legislature, especially given the volatile nature of the Senate, which is now under a power-sharing coalition of Republicans and four Democrats that tacitly received the governor’s backing.
Cuomo says it’s not his place to determine who leads the legislative conferences in another branch of government.
He’s likely mindful of the fights Eliot Spitzer tried to pick with Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Silver himself.
But he also knows the mindset of the rank-and-file lawmaker in Assembly. And at the end of the day, most seem to consider Silver to be a good boss who attends to their needs and listens to their complaints.
Cuomo knows that picking a fight with one Assembly speaker means he’s picking a fight with an entire legislative conference (minus Buffalo’s Michael Kearns) that could completely stall what’s left to do this spring.
The governor is already running smack into a wall of opposition in the Senate, where Republicans (and at least one Democrat) don’t want to hold a vote on a measure to strengthen abortion laws or allow for the public financing of political campaigns.
Silver is not an ally of Cuomo’s, but for a governor who has touted functionality of state government above all — three on-time budgets in a row is a major feather in his cap — stability in the Legislature is paramount.
Ultimately it appears there’s little chance of Silver losing his job anytime soon.
This is not the first time Silver has been criticized by newspaper editorial boards or unelected Republicans like state party chairman Ed Cox and it won’t be the last.
Kearns, who announced was splitting from the Democratic conference over the Lopez affair, was never supported by the Assembly leadership to begin with, having run on an anti-Silver platform. That’s political catnip to Buffalo voters.
Meanwhile, he held a news conference outlining his plans to change how sexual harassment cases are resolved in state government. And, in a rare moment of public contrition for the powerful speaker, Silver apologized.
“Mistakes were made,” Silver said, “and I deeply regret that.”
May 20th - 1:09 pm
Erie County has seen a strong resistance to the NY SAFE Act. In addition to local gun rights advocates, several elected officials, including the county’s top cop, have been vocal critics of the law.
“I believe in my heart and my soul that it’s unconstitutional,” said Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard.
The Republican Sheriff has not only joined a lawsuit seeking to overturn the SAFE Act, he announced last week he won’t enforce it. It’s a position that’s made him a target.
“We elect a sheriff. We don’t elect a king. Kings get to make their own laws. Sheriffs get to follow the laws as written,” State Assemblyman Sean Ryan said.
The Buffalo Democrat said Howard’s refusal to enforce the SAFE Act could literally put people’s lives at risk. Those convicted of domestic violence, who have an order of protection against them, would have their firearms confiscated under the SAFE Act.
“Safety of victims of domestic violence isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s an issue for all society to be concerned with,” Ryan said.
Howard balked at the suggestions his opposition to the law would put anyone in the community in danger, and suggested the SAFE Act is the real public threat.
“That is endangering people inNew York. It’s endangering the public and it’s endangering police and we’re supposed to say oh thank you, we’ll accept this and say nothing about it?” Howard asked.
Howard said his office is committed to protecting victims of domestic violence with the laws already on the books. In the wake of the Vito Lopez scandal, Howard questioned whether or not an Assembly Democrat should be raising the issue.
“Let them go back and get their own house in order, particularly if he wants to talk about domestic violence,” said Howard.
Howard pointed out that the district attorney has the ability to file charges under the SAFE Act. For Ryan that’s not good enough.
“As a top law enforcement individual in the county, your job is to enforce the laws. You don’t have the authority to pick and choose,” Ryan said.
Ryan suggested the Governor could remove Howard from office for not enforcing the law. Howard had a simple message response.
“If he thinks he can, go ahead and try,” Howard added.
May 20th - 11:04 am
As Liz pointed out earlier with today’s Siena College poll, the results were a bit conflicting.
Nothing is in more perennial conflict then the “love your lawmaker, hate the Legislature” sentiment that voters hold.
Consider this telling chart from Siena:
Individual senators are more popular than the Senate as a whole. Individual Assemblymembers are more popular than the chamber. Both the Senate — controlled by a coalition of Republicans and four Democrats — and Assembly, long led by Democrats — are below 50 percent favorable among voters.
It makes sense: It’s easier to dislike a sprawling institution with opaque rules and scared with scandal and corruption. Individual lawmakers, meanwhile, holding informational events in the district, are seen in local grocery stores and are generally in the business of being liked.
May 17th - 4:41 pm
A one-page resolution was released this afternoon by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office today that authorizes an investigation by the Assembly Ethics into allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, and recommends that he be expelled from the chamber.
The resolution authorizes the committee to review the Joint Commission on Public Ethics report detailing Lopez’s verbal abuse and sexual harassment toward four legislative aides and recommends “if warranted, additional sanctions, including expulsion.”
The resolution begins the process of removing Lopez from the state Legislature, a source of what once was his power both in Albany and at home in his Brooklyn district.
A spokesman for Silver said this afternoon the resolution will be voted on Monday when the Assembly returns to Albany.
In a statement issued this morning, Lopez signaled he would resign by June 20, the final day of the legislative session.
Silver, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers, repsonded that Lopez should be removed from the state Legislature now, not in one month.
May 17th - 1:56 pm
Even though Assemblyman Vito Lopez is resigning in disgrace – and under duress – following his sexual harassment scandal, that’s not enough to prevent him from continuing to collect his $64,634.28 annual pension.
That’s right, “continuing.” Lopez is actually already retired, and has been since Dec. 31, 2010, acccording to the state comptroller’s office. (He had 48.16 years of service credit at the time; he started his career with the NYC Department of Social Services at the Stanhope Street Senior Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and was elected to the Assembly in 1984 ).
Lopez was one of ten lawmakers to file retirement papers three years ago, enabling them to start collecting their pensions and their legislative salaries (in Lopez’s case, $92,000) at the same time. The controversial move might be deemed double-dipping by some, but it’s completely legal thanks to a loophole that applies to legislators who are older than 65.
Remember: Lopez hasn’t been charged with any crimes, and would have to be found guilty of a felony-level offense in order to automatically lose his seat.
Even if he WAS to be found guilty of such a crime, he would still be able to continue collecting his pension. There are a number of proposals out there – including one first floated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2011 – that would end that practice going forward, but would not apply to the many former elected officials who were found guilty of wrongdoing and continue to collect their taxpayer-funded pensions anyway.
(UPDATE: I’m reminded by the governor’s office that this was passed as part of the 2011 ethics reform package Cuomo pushed through the Legislature, using a Moreland Act Commission threat – much the way he has in the wake of the recent wave of corruption scandals in hopes of getting more reforms, including changes to the campaign finance system).
Also, expulsion from the Legislature, which it appears the Assembly might try to do to Lopez, since he so far has refused to depart until the end of this session, does not terminate a former lawmaker’s pension, either.
May 15th - 3:47 pm
A spokesman Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in a statement released this afternoon the actions taken by his office were done in “good-faith” and with the interest of the victims in mind.
The statement comes after a report detailing from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics that detailed multiple instances of sexual harassment by Assemblyman Vito Lopez against legislative aides was made public.
The report found that aides to Silver and the speaker sought to keep the more than $100,000 in settlement money confidential in order to mitigate any further damages and potentially sensationalized press stories.
“Speaker Sheldon Silver has stated that the actions that were taken represented a good-faith belief that the Assembly was acting in the interests of the victims, and that has not changed,” said the spokesman, Michael Whyland. “A full review of the facts by both JCOPE and the Special Prosecutor has found that all actions by the Assembly were lawful and there was no basis for an ethics complaint against the Speaker or his staff.”
Silver in August admitted that it was a mistake to not refer the complaints of two aides to Lopez to the Assembly Ethics Committee, but has insisted no laws were broken. The JCOPE report found no criminal or civil wrongdoing on the part of Silver or his staff.
While talks with lawyers for Lopez and the women accusing him of harassment were ongoing, Lopez was able to hire three more aides, two of whom later accused the Brooklyn Democrat of harassment as well.
“However, as the Speaker stated in August, it was a mistake not to immediately refer the initial complaints to the Assembly Committee on Ethics and Guidance, one that will not be repeated,” he said. “The Speaker is deeply committed to ensuring that all our employees are treated with respect and dignity.”
Silver also reiterated his call for Lopez to resign. The lawmaker is currently running for city council.
“As to Assemblyman Lopez, sanctions have been imposed and the Speaker has called for him to step down from the Assembly,” Whyland said. “Given that the JCOPE investigation has found significant violations of the Public Officers Law by Assemblyman Lopez, Speaker Silver renews his call for him to resign.”
May 15th - 2:55 pm
In the days after learning of allegations of sexual harassment made by legislative aides of Assemblyman Vito Lopez, top staffers to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said they were “disturbed” by the possibility of “sensationalized press,” according to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics report released this morning.
That concern, in part, would help drive the effort to keep more than $100,000 in settlement money a secret from the public and from members of the Assembly Ethics Committee.
The report also lays out that while lawyers for the Assembly staffers never explicitly sought a confidentiality clause in the settlement, it was the Assembly that pushed the language.
To be sure, the commission found no criminal or civil wrongdoing on the part of Assembly aides or Silver. The speaker admitted last year that keeping the settlement a secret was wrong, but the Assembly followed the proper guidelines.
Lopez, meanwhile, was accused in the report for violating the public for his conduct toward the women.
Staffers in January, along with Silver, met to discuss the allegations made by two women working in Lopez’s office that he had sexually harassed them over a period of months.
Concerns arose that celebrity attorney Gloria Allred was representing one of the woman.
“Legislative counsel Bill Collins “had concerns about the likelihood of sensationalized press, because Gloria Allred was one of the lawyers representing the women. (Silver aide Jim) Yates said that he was “disturbed” by this possibility as well.”
It was during that meeting that Silver agreed with the recommendations of his staff to enter into confidential mediation.
Silver “made clear” that he wanted to separate the Assembly’s interests and liability from Lopez. He said in the meeting the Assembly would only pay for its liability and what was potentially owed by Lopez, according to the report.
As the confidential mediation with Lopez, the Assembly and the staffers wore on, Lopez was able to hire three more women, two of whom would later accuse him of sexual harassment even as the settlement money was being approved.
A lawyer working in the Office of the Attoreny General recognized as an expert in employment law was contacted, who immediately determined the AG’s office could only work with the Assembly on a broad basis, given that the office only provides counsel during litigation.
The attorney told JCOPE that she was even unaware that it was Lopez who was accused of sexual harassment. The attorney would later tell JCOPE her office had ceased “confidential” settlement agreements.
Later the Assembly would contact Ken Kirschner, identified as an employment lawyer whom Silver was familiar with, to help with the confidentiality clause of the settlement.
In an email, Collins wrote to Kirschner “[m]oney flow and our desire to keep this away from media scrutiny complicates [sic] the resolution of this matter a bit.” Kearns’s notes also indicate a concern about publicity. In describing a conversation with Lopez’s counsel, Kearns noted that there are “quotes” in the recordings made by Complainant 1 that are “headline-making.”
After the Assembly Ethics Committee was made aware of the allegations of the first two women along with the subsequent allegations of the spring and summer of 2012, the panel voted to condemn Lopez’s actions and Silver’s office released the news widely.
As questions arose from the settlement money, Yates told Mariann Wang, a lawyer for two of the staffers, that the Assembly was under media pressure to explain the settlement terms.
The Assembly would later issue this statement: “The only instance in which a complaint would not be handled by the ethics committee would be if a victim insisted for reasons of personal privacy that it not go before the committee. The Assembly would only keep such a matter confidential at the express insistence of the victim.”
After Wang complained the statement was a “complete misrepresentation of the facts” Collins admitted her concern was “not inaccurate.”
No correction to the statement was made.
In speaking with the ethics panel, Silver “admitted that “maybe ‘insist’ was too strong a word.’”