By Michael Gormley and Michael Virtanen
ALBANY — The Bushwick assemblyman accused of asking young female staffers to massage him, touch his cancerous tumors and join him in hotel rooms said Saturday he will resign rather than possibly be expelled from the Legislature amid sexual harassment allegations.
The announcement by Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez, 72, a once powerful Brooklyn Democratic leader, came as a surprise. A day earlier he had defied demands by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, leader of the Democratic party, to resign immediately.
Instead, Lopez said he would resign at the end of the legislative session on June 20 to fully pursue his candidacy for the New York City Council.
In a single, terse sentence Lopez announced the resignation from the seat he's held since 1984: "I hereby resign the public office of Member of the Assembly from the 53rd Assembly District, Kings County, effective 9 a.m. Monday, May 20, 2013."
Silver announced Lopez's reversal. The powerful speaker had planned Monday to begin a rare and uncertain effort to expel a sitting lawmaker. Expelling Lopez could have proved difficult — he's not charged with any crime and was overwhelmingly re-elected in November, when the scandal was already widely known.
But Lopez and Silver have been under increased pressure since last week, when reports from Special Prosecutor Daniel Donovan and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics detailed allegations involving four female staffers. The allegations including Lopez forcing his hand up a woman's leg, trying to coerce them to share hotel rooms with him, touching the tumors on his neck and requiring them to write flattering and flirtatious memos to him that he later tried to use to discredit their accusations.
The allegations involving two women came last summer, when the scandal first became public. That's when Silver and top Assembly staffers, along with reviews by top staffers for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, authorized a secret $103,000 settlement for Lopez's first accusers.
Political science Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College called the resignation "partial deodorizing" of scandal-plagued Albany.
"Albany needs more extensive and permanent disinfectant," he said Saturday.
"It's a good thing for the state, the Assembly and the people of Brooklyn that he resigned," said Richard Brodsky of the Wagner School of New York University, who also served with Lopez and Silver in the Assembly.
"In the heat of the moment, it is also important to recognize that there ought to be limitations on a legislative body removing merely the unpleasant or the disgusting from membership," Brodsky said, noting the expulsion effort wasn't a sure thing. "The law at stake here is the right of the people to be represented. On balance, in this case, this resignation is important and necessary."
He noted the case after World War I when the Assembly refused to seat three socialists elected to office.
"Today we look at that as it was, the Red Scare," said Jack McEneny, a former Democratic assemblyman who acted as a historian for the chamber who agrees there was a legal question to expelling Lopez. "Today, in our minds, that's not appropriate for a democracy."
Lopez has denied sexually harassing anyone. He noted the two investigations found he committed no crime and that only the voters should decide if he leaves office. His attorney didn't respond to a request for comment Saturday.
"My reaction is, 'So what?'" said Bill Samuels, founder of the good-government group The New Roosevelts. He notes Lopez's resignation simply ends one scandal rocking Albany. The Capitol is beset by federal investigations into corruption and bribery involving at least five lawmakers, one of whom wore an FBI wire to try to ensnare fellow legislators. More than 30 state officials have lost their jobs to corruption and related incidents over seven years.
"The real question is, will Cuomo, Silver and (Senate Republican leader Dean) Skelos do anything meaningful to change this culture?" Samuels said.
Cuomo has proposed ethics legislation, his second package since he and the Legislature passed a 2011 ethics reform act after campaigning in 2010 to "clean up Albany," a platform similar to ones routinely used in Albany campaigns for decades.
"Today's immediate resignation is the best end to this ugly chapter," said Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa. "Now we must do everything we can to ensure this type of behavior is never tolerated or allowed to occur again."
Silver had no immediate comment on Lopez's resignation.
In last week's report the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics also found "a substantial basis to conclude" Lopez violated civil provisions of state Public Officer's Law. It also said Lopez violated the public trust by forcing employees to acquiesce to his demands and receive privileges and plum assignments, or be threatened with job loss or demotion.