This is the story that won’t go away. In one of the most disturbing stories pulling back the curtains on Albany’s seaminess, a former leader of the New York State Assembly has been fined $330,000 in a shocking case of chronic and pervasive sexual abuse that his leaders tried to cover up.
The State Legislative Ethics Commission hit former Assemblyman Vito Lopez with what is believed to be the largest fine in Albany’s history. The commission found at least 33 “inappropriate actions,” “offensive comments of a sexual nature” and “unwanted physical contact” against at least four women while he was an assemblyman and also the head of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party.
This story broke into the public arena with the report that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last summer had crafted a secret $103,000 settlement, using public money, to end the first accusations against Lopez. Silver justified the secrecy by claiming Lopez’s victims asked for privacy. That turned out to be false.
Soon, more women complained about Lopez. Chastened, Silver followed Assembly policy on those allegations.
Lopez resigned in May and, while he has denied sexually harassing anyone, the allegations were credible enough to prompt a record fine against him – one, we are sure, that a man of his influence won’t have trouble paying. Still, it’s not a slap on the wrist.
But it is more than a little odd that Lopez hasn’t been charged with any crimes. The women who have complained about him said he groped them. That’s legal? A special prosecutor assigned to the matter, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, cleared Lopez of criminal wrongdoing in a scathing report on his conduct, but other people who did what Lopez is accused of wouldn’t just be paying administrative fines, they’d be posting bail.
Well, it’s Albany. Such is its pervasive sense of entitlement that Lopez isn’t the least bit daunted by the accusations against him or his hasty and unwilling departure from the Assembly. He is running for a seat on the New York City Council.
Here’s a fact, though: If the disgrace that Lopez and other elected officials have brought to Albany – or, more accurately, that they documented about Albany – doesn’t prompt significant changes, then get ready for a new set of scandals. The playground is still open.