By Michael Gormley
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Monday that he has asked for the resignation of Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic boss accused of sexually harassing female staffers, a scandal that ensnared Silver when he brokered a secret settlement with the women using public money.
"I told him it would be best for him personally and send a message" against sexual harassment, Silver told reporters in Charlotte, N.C., at the Democratic National Convention.
Lopez, whose district spans Williamsburg and Bushwick, has said he never sexually harassed anyone. He did not immediately respond to telephone messages and emails sent to his district office.
Silver said he had asked Lopez to quit after an Assembly ethics committee in August found that he sexually harassed two staffers. Silver has caught heat for a secret $103,000 settlement in June using taxpayers' money to end the separate sexual harassment charges made against Lopez.
Silver said he was following the accusers' wishes for privacy when he agreed to the private settlement, but he said he won't help with such settlements again because they conflict with transparency needed in government.
If Lopez continues to refuse to resign, Silver said he will pursue other means of ousting him.
"I will take whatever is legal and what is appropriate," he said.
Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan is investigating the Lopez case. Lopez would be expelled from the Assembly if convicted of a felony. A conviction of a misdemeanor could also lead to expulsion by the Assembly members after a review.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics is expected to investigate beginning Tuesday. The commission could expand a probe to include Silver's role in what he called a "legal and ethical" mediated settlement outside the Assembly ethics committee.
"I think it will show we made some mistakes, but we acted in good faith," Silver said.
Democrats have mostly supported Silver as he leads the New York Democratic delegation at the national convention. He has the honor of committing New York's delegates to President Barack Obama.
"The worst is over for Speaker Silver," said Hank Sheinkopf, a national political adviser who worked in the Clinton White House. "The fact is, the speaker did not act alone. All his actions were known to the comptroller and the attorney general."
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said they didn't know about the settlement and staff attorneys had only cursory involvement, though emails released Friday show the lawyers didn't try to stop or question the $103,000 to settle claims against Lopez.
One of the attorneys for the women, however, has blasted Silver, saying the settlement wasn't intended to protect Lopez from a formal investigation. A confidentiality clause in drafts of the settlement, which still hasn't been released publicly, states that the accusers can't talk about Lopez and that Lopez admitted no guilt.
"Shelly weathers this storm," said former Democratic Assemblyman Michael Benjamin from the Bronx. He said he has no problem having Silver lead the delegation at the convention and the conference in Albany, even winning the pay raise Assembly members and senators seek after the fall elections.
"Shelly didn't commit sexual harassment," Benjamin, now a political commentator, said Monday. "Not referring the matter to the ethics committee was a lapse in judgment. But Shelly should not be punished for that."
He said he was more bothered by the commanding role at the convention of former President Bill Clinton, "a serial womanizer" whom Benjamin sees as no different than Lopez.
Silver, 68, is one of the longest-serving legislative leaders in New York history and in August won a national leadership award from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Silver is maintaining a high-level role in the national Democratic convention despite the scandal. The duties for Silver, an Orthodox Jew, at the Democratic National Convention include playing host of a dinner for delegates at a kosher restaurant.