ALBANY, N.Y. — It was an odd assignment for the young, pretty staffer when she was ordered to go along on a trip to Atlantic City with her boss. But the reason soon became clear.
She said she spent much of the trip struggling to fend off the advances and kisses of 72-year-old Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez. He was persistent, she said, and eventually put his hand between her legs.
She and another female staffer said it was part of a regular routine of office harassment that included inappropriate touching and comments about their bodies, how they dressed and even how they were getting along with their boyfriends. They said the job included writing letters to Lopez about how much they loved their jobs — letters Lopez complained were “insufficiently effusive,” according to his official censure.
The accusations that emerged over the summer are hardly unusual in a state capital, especially Albany, which has such a rich history of sexual misconduct by lawmakers that it has its own, unwritten Las Vegas-like code: What happens north of Bear Mountain stays there.
But what began as a relatively modest scandal has pierced the veil of the so-called Bear Mountain Compact, unraveling in public before a state ethics committee, revealing more sexual misconduct accusations against Lopez and a secret six-figure payoff to the accusers with taxpayer money that was approved by one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state.
That lawmaker, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was initially singed by the scandal, with some political opponents calling for his resignation. A special prosecutor is investigating whether crimes were committed, and a wide-ranging probe by the state’s nascent ethics watchdog is exploring the roles played by other powerful Democrats, including the attorney general and comptroller.
How effectively the Joint Commission on Public Ethics handles the politically charged case will reflect on the man who created it as part of his campaign promise to “clean up” Albany: Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, long considered a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
“You will always find situations where people do things wrong,” Cuomo said. “You will always find situations where people in power make mistakes, or abuse their power, or abuse their authority, or are corrupt or venal.”
“The question becomes when people make a mistake, or when a bad thing is done, what is the response?”
In the case of Lopez, a longtime Democratic dealmaker who was lampooned in New York City tabloid headlines as “King Leer” and “Gropez,” the allegations that emerged over the summer were found credible by New York’s Assembly ethics committee. The panel censured him Aug. 24, and Silver stripped Lopez of seniority perks and power.
The censure revealed a previously unknown set of accusations against Lopez made in June that were settled secretly with $103,000 in public money approved by Silver. That deal was crafted with input from lawyers with the attorney general’s and comptroller’s offices.
Lopez, who has called the scandal an “onslaught of character attacks,” said: “I have never sexually harassed any staff, and I hope and intend to prove in the coming months the political nature of these accusations.”
Cuomo is the third governor in a row to try to put more teeth in ethics oversight. Four years before Cuomo took office, Democrat Eliot Spitzer created his own ethics board to sanitize Albany, only to resign amid charges he solicited prostitutes. His Democratic successor, David Paterson, was forced to admit on just his second day in office that he had affairs with a “number of women” while a state senator.
Such clashes of sex and power have become part of the lore of Albany, where a cluster of taverns a short walk from the Capitol had for years featured a loud mix of pols and young staffers mingling over scotch and steaks. In the 1990s, the New York Post’s front page declared Albany “Sin City.”
And a decade ago, the Albany County district attorney investigating claims of sexual harassment and rape in the Capitol put it this way: “Any father who would let his daughter be an intern in the state Legislature should have his head examined.”
After the initial flurry, Silver appears to have blunted any serious threat to his power from this scandal.
Silver, a 69-year-old lawyer from Manhattan, is one of Albany’s most powerful, little-understood and private of figures, called “the Sphinx” by some for his ability to prevail in budgets and policy.
A renowned political strategist, he may even have strengthened his position by making sexual harassment harder to get away with. By publicly admitting he was wrong to seal the case with a confidentiality agreement and promising not to do any others, he issued a strong early warning to lawmakers.
Democratic Assemblyman John McEneny says the Lopez case has already struck back at sexual harassment, just as previous reforms to the legislative intern program addressed some of the barhopping and relationships with young — usually female — staffers.
“Individually, there will always be a problem as long as there are human beings,” said McEneny, a member of the Assembly ethics committee. “But institutionally, we tend to take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”