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Bias Suit Against NY Speaker Gets Green Light

MANHATTAN (CN) - New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver must face claims that he "fostered a culture of sex-based discrimination" that let a colleague prey upon two female staffers, a federal judge ruled.

"No reasonable official (and in this case a lawyer) could have believed that turning a blind eye to Lopez's misconduct was consistent with clearly established law," the 16-page opinion filed Tuesday states.

In their 2013 federal complaint, Victoria Burhans and Chloe Rivera had claimed that Assemblyman Vito Lopez tried to pimp Burhans out to a man in the governor's Executive Mansion house staff to get a housing bill passed in what he called a "'Lincoln bedroom' situation."

Burhans, 28, alleged that Lopez had sexually harassed more than a dozen other times around that time, from May to July 2012.

Before one trip to Atlantic City, Lopez told Burhans not to wear a bra, which was "a frequent obsession" of his, she said.

"When Burhans defied Lopez's instruction and wore a bra, Lopez became very angry and refused to talk to Burhans for hours," the complaint alleged.

Rivera, 26, said she declined Lopez's invitation to join him for a weeklong trip to Quebec that had "no work purpose," and that her mother called the police after learning that Lopez suggested that she take pointers from a 14-year-old intern on how to "dress sexy."

The ensuing investigation triggered an ethics investigation ending in Lopez's censure, and ultimately his resignation in May 2013.

Burhans and Rivera's complaint against Lopez and Silver, filed a month later, alleged that Silver enabled him.

"Months before Lopez hired plaintiffs, Silver and his senior staff learned that at least two other women on Lopez's staff had credibly complained that Lopez had sexually harassed them and other employees," the complaint says.

Rather than referring this to the ethics committee, Silver and Lopez allegedly "orchestrated a confidential payment" to these other women to keep their complaints under wraps.

Disputing that he caused the harassment, Silver claimed he had political immunity from the complaint.

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres refused Tuesday to let Silver off the hook.

"The inaction alleged by plaintiffs - Silver's failure to refer complaints of sexual harassment to the Ethics Committee, Silver's failure to discipline Lopez, and Silver's failure to take corrective measures to protect Lopez's other employees - are all, arguably, examples of Silver's failure to exercise his responsibilities as Speaker pursuant to the rules and policies of the Assembly," the opinion states.

Although Silver noted that he eventually referred Burhans and Rivera's complaints to the Ethics Committee for investigation, Torres said his argument "misapprehends the scope of [their] allegations."

"Plaintiffs claim that Silver's action and inaction, in the face of over a decade of successive complaints of sexual harassment against senior Assembly officials, fostered a culture of sex-based discrimination," she wrote.

Kevin Mintzer, who represents the women, said his clients are "pleased" with the decision.

"They look forward to proceeding with their claims and to the day when Mr. Silver and Mr. Lopez are formally held accountable for violating their right to be free from sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the Assembly," he said.

Silver's attorney Bettina Plevan with Proskauer Rose noted that the ruling does not address the merits of the allegations.

"We are confident that when the evidence is presented the Speaker will prevail on all claims," Plevan said.

Torres scheduled a pretrial conference for July 2.

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