NYC Assemblyman Lopez will resign amid sex scandal (update)

ALBANY – Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez said Friday he will resign, not over claims he sexually harassed women staffers, but instead to run for New York City Council.

The veteran Brooklyn lawmaker and onetime powerful borough political boss has been under growing pressure to resign. It became public last year that the state secretly paid two female staffers $103,000 to settle the first sexual harassment claims against him. Two more young female staffers he hired to replace them started reporting sexual harassment, even as the settlement was being worked out last summer.

Two blistering reports this week, from a special prosecutor and the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, painted an ugly picture of the 71-year-old assemblyman making unwanted contact with women, but concluded there was no evidence to charge him with a crime in Brooklyn, where the investigation was conducted.

Lopez said in a statement Friday that he was vindicated by the reports and felt “gratified” the special prosecutor and the ethics commission found he committed no crime.

“I expect to run a vigorous campaign on the issues facing the citizens of my community and hope to continue to serve them as a member of the City Council,” Lopez said. “I believe that the voters of the community should decide who should represent them.”

Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver pressed on to remove Lopez from the Legislature sooner than the June 20 end of the session that Lopez chose.

“Assembly member Lopez should no longer be in public office,” Silver’s spokesman, Michael Whyland, said Friday. “We will move forward with our resolution on Monday.”

Later Friday, his office released a resolution calling on the Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance to immediately review the JCOPE report and recommend sanctions. The Assembly is expected to vote on the resolution Monday when it convenes again.

Attorneys for two of the women who accused Lopez say Silver’s action is too late.

“Sheldon Silver has tried to shift the focus to Lopez, hypocritically deciding now, 16 months after first learning of complaints about Vito Lopez’s behavior, to ask for Lopez’s expulsion,” said attorneys Gloria Allred, Nathan Goldberg and Mariann Wang in a joint statement. “Silver’s decision must be critically examined for what it truly is: yet another effort to cover his own tracks and despicable, power-hungry behavior.”

The ethics report claimed Lopez subjected young female staffers to inappropriate touching and comments about their bodies. It claims they also were forced to write letters to him about how much they loved their jobs.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics says it found “a substantial basis to conclude” Lopez violated a civil law concerning public officials and is forwarding its findings to the Legislative Ethics Commission. That body could lodge a charge against Lopez and send the case to the full Assembly for action.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is also head of the state Democratic Party, repeated his call on Thursday for Lopez to resign or be expelled by the Democrat-led Assembly.

“There should be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and we must now send a clear message that this behavior is not tolerated,” Cuomo said Friday. “Vito Lopez should not spend another day in office, let alone a whole month. He should resign effective immediately and if he does not, he must be expelled.”

Silver on Thursday night announced he would send a resolution to the full Assembly on Monday to put Lopez on a trajectory to be expelled, a rarity in the New York Legislature. His resolution also would call for the Assembly to consider sanctions based on findings of two investigations of the allegations against Lopez. The reports were critical of how Silver and his top staff handled the case.

That handling included the $103,000 secret settlement using public money to end the first two formal accusations of sexual harassment against Lopez.

Associated Press writers Rik Stevens and Michael Virtanen contributed to this report.