Taxpayer Wants NY Speaker to Pony Up

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver improperly spent $103,000 of public money to settle sexual harassment complaints against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a taxpayer claims in court.
     Robert L. Schulz sued Silver in a pro se complaint in Albany County Supreme Court.
     Schulz wants Silver ordered to repay $103,800 paid in partial settlement of sexual harassment complaints against Lopez, who has resigned.
     Schulz claims Silver violated a state constitution prohibition on “money of the state” being “given or loaned to or in aid of any private corporation or association or private undertaking.”
     Lopez resigned under pressure in May after two state ethics panels and a special prosecutor released findings on the handling of sexual harassment complaints against him. Lopez, a Democrat first elected in 1984, represented parts of Brooklyn.
     The findings revealed that two female staff members complained in late 2011 and early 2012 about Lopez’s behavior toward them, saying he made crude comments about their appearance and dress and tried to force intimate contact.
     Their complaints, made to the majority counsel’s office, should have been referred to an Assembly committee for investigation, according to the findings, but were resolved in June 2012 through a confidential settlement negotiated by representatives for Lopez, Silver and the two women.
     The settlement included $103,800 from a miscellaneous services account maintained by the Assembly and $32,000 from Lopez’s personal account. The Assembly’s payment was approved by the state Comptroller’s Office.
     Silver, longtime leader of the Assembly, has suffered public heat for the way he handled the scandal.
     “Defendant Sheldon Silver was more interested in covering up the matter than uncovering and disclosing the facts of Lopez’s behavior by following Assembly rules and honoring the New York State Constitution,” Schulz says in his complaint, which cites findings released by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission.
     The complaint also cites statements by the special prosecutor, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who found no criminal conduct in the settlement or the payment, but criticized the secrecy surrounding them.
     The confidential settlement came to light late last summer after Lopez was sanctioned by Silver and stripped of an Assembly chairmanship after two other complaints of sexual harassment.
     The Legislative Ethics Commission reported in May that it found at least 33 violations of public officers’ law in Lopez’s conduct toward the four women who brought harassment complaints.
     Silver, a legislator since 1976 and speaker of the Assembly since 1994, subsequently acknowledged he mishandled the complaints and announced new harassment protocols.
     Schulz contends Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, acted beyond his legislative function in authorizing the settlement.
     “Plaintiff is entitled to have defendant pay to the public treasury the monetary amount necessary to replace what was lost, including interest,” Schulz says in the complaint.
     He also seeks punitive damages, claiming “Defendant’s action demonstrates a conscious disregard for the rights of plaintiff and other citizens of the State of New York, causing substantial harm, including ‘pain and suffering’ and harm to the reputation of the State of New York.”

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