Ethics Panel Report Remains Secret

Feb 14, 2013

JCOPE Chair Janet DiFiore at meeting in 2011

A government reform group is calling for a state ethics panel report to be made public, one day after  the panel investigating charges against Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez sent a report to the legislative ethics committee.

Allegations against Assemblyman Vito Lopez were made public by the Assembly last summer, when he was accused of sexually harassing two female staffers and censured.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver later admitted that it was not the first time Lopez had been in trouble on sexual harassment charges. Earlier in the same year, 2012, Silver had authorized a secret pay out to two other alleged victims of Lopez.

Speaker Silver, in an interview earlier this month with public radio and television, says he knows concealing the payments was wrong. But says he believed at the time that  he acted in the “best interest” of  the alleged victims, who had  sought privacy. Silver says he made a mistake, but it was a "political" one.   

“I did not make an ethical mistake as far as I’m concerned, “said Silver.

The probe by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics looked at the accusations against Assemblyman Lopez, and also investigated Silver’s role in trying to mediate the situations.  The ethics panel is run by appointees of Governor Cuomo, Senate Leaders, and Speaker Silver.   Under law, it is not allowed to make the final report public.  The ethics commission  instead referred the report  to the Legislature’s Joint Ethics Panel.

A spokesman for Speaker Silver says he’s “confident that  the commission found no legal or ethical violation by Speaker Silver or his staff”.  

The Legislature’s Ethics Panel now has 45 days to act. It can keep the report secret for the entire month and half.

Sue Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, says there’s no reason why the legislature’s ethics panel cannot act much sooner.

“To wait for 45 days in this situation would concern us,” said Lerner. “We believe they should thoroughly review the report quickly, take whatever  action they are going to take, and make the report public.”  

Speaker Silver is also urging that the report be released. 

Common Cause, along with the National Organization for Women, asked the state ethics panel to conduct a wider probe of sexual harassment and other possible misconduct in the Assembly, as well as the Assembly leadership’s response to any allegations.

“How does the Assembly handle these sorts of complaints, was this part of a pattern?” Lerner asked. “The women who work in government deserve to know that those questions have been answered.”

They have not heard back. Under the rules, the ethics panel is also constrained from confirming or denying that a probe is underway.

Vito Lopez still holds his Assembly seat. He resigned another post as Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair last fall, but he won re election to the Assembly last November,  he’s currently serving a two year term.  Lopez has been stripped of his committee chairmanship, and any extra stipends that came with it.