Friday, September 7, 2012

Judge orders wider Assembly probe to include Silver's OK of secret Vito Lopez sex harass settlement
Last Updated: 3:42 PM, September 7, 2012
Posted: 3:40 PM, September 7, 2012

A state judge on Friday ordered a special prosecutor to expand his probe of a sexual harassment case in the state Assembly to include a secret settlement using public money approved by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
State Supreme Court Justice Fern Fisher told Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan that his investigation as special prosecutor should not only include the July sexual harassment claims against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, but also the accusations in a $103,000 private settlement in June approved by Silver.
The judge wants Donovan to investigate the claims of "unwanted and unwelcome physical contact, and to prosecute any charges arising out of that contact."
The order empowers Donovan to remain special prosecutor in the case indefinitely, through any appeals and any "post-judgment proceedings initiated in any court." There is description of what that might involve.
Donovan spokesman Peter Spencer declined comment.
Lopez has denied he sexually harassed anyone and says the claims are politically motivated. He has refused requests by Silver and other top Democratic leaders to resign. The Assembly ethics committee censured him on Aug. 24.
Silver, the powerful Democratic speaker, says he wants a full investigation.
He has said he regrets making the secret deal to settle two claims against Lopez in June, but was motivated by the request of the accusers. Although Silver says the agreement was legal and ethical, he has said it conflicts with the need for transparent government and he won't do another.
The judge's action comes after the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics met for two hours behind closed doors Tuesday, without confirming or denying any investigation of Lopez or the settlement.
Under JCOPE's rules, legislative appointees can in effect block an investigation of a legislator in a secret vote.
Shortly after the judge expanded the scope of Donovan's investigation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to create a powerful investigatory body to dig into sexual harassment charges in the Legislature if JCOPE doesn't investigate Silver's settlement.
"We believe it would be unconscionable for any legislative appointees to JCOPE to block such investigation," said Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto. If they do, the governor will appoint a commission to conduct the investigation, he said. "Either way, the public will know the facts and answers to the questions that have been raised."
Vlasto said the statement was in response to a New York Times article that said JCOPE may be deferring investigation of Silver's settlement.
Five of the top seven officers in JCOPE worked for Cuomo as investigators or aides and he appointed the chairwoman. But JCOPE's board must authorize investigations.
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