Assembly candidates in two North Country districts say a recent scandal involving Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should lead to stricter enforcement of ethics rules in New York state.
In August, the state Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance ruled that Lopez violated the Assembly's policy on sexual harassment and retaliation when he sexually harassed two female staffers - although Lopez claims he didn't harass them. The scandal grew when it was revealed that the Assembly, led by Silver, paid the women a total of $135,000 - including about $100,000 in state tax funds - to stay quiet. The ordeal has since grown to include a pair of powerful Democrats, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who knew about the arrangement and did not object.
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, is locked in a three-way race for New York's new 115th Assembly District, which will include the 114th, which Duprey represents now, minus the Essex County town of St. Armand and plus four towns in St. Lawrence County. She faces Plattsburgh educator Karen Bisso, a Conservative, and Plattsburgh City Councilman Tim Carpenter, a Democrat, in the Nov. 6 election. Duprey declined to discuss the Vito-Silver scandal specifically because she took an oath of confidentiality as a member of the Assembly Ethics Committee.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, speaks during an affordable housing news conference as Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, right, listens on April 18 at the state Capitol in Albany.
(AP file photo — Mike Groll)
"I do feel the public document released on the Committee's actions against Mr. Lopez shows the current policy can work," she told the Enterprise in an email, adding that the ethics committee is bipartisan and gives victims and perpetrators a fair hearing.
Duprey said the Assembly has taken steps to tighten ethics guidelines, policies and penalties.
"Although the process is considerably better than when I went to the Assembly six years ago, there are more improvements needed," she said. "Currently, referral of a complaint to the Ethics Committee is not mandatory, and I believe mandatory reporting will eliminate any unauthorized deals."
Bisso said, as a taxpayer and a woman, she's disgusted by the scandal.
"The Democrats tout the 'Republican War on Women,'" she said in an emailed statement. "However, once again, New York taxpayers have to put up with another 'Spitzer' type sex scandal."
Bisso said Silver should step down as speaker and be removed from the Assembly for his role. She said he should also be charged criminally.
"If you or I embezzled $103,000 out of a business, we would be," Bisso said.
Silver hasn't been charged with anything yet. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics has been investigating the matter and met Thursday to continue its probe.
"If Sheldon Silver is not in jail on criminal charges, and the ethics committee which Janet Duprey sits on has not openly removed him from the Assembly, then honestly the ethics committee is just another useless committee where Assembly people get paid to do nothing," Bisso said.
Carpenter said the scandal is "sad," and it erodes the trust and confidence New Yorkers should have in their elected leaders. He said he doesn't have enough information to say whether Silver should step down.
"My understanding is that this issue is not over, so we will have to wait and see if the state policy is strong enough or if it works at all," he said. "If I were in the Assembly, I would be digging for all the information I could find."
Queensbury town Supervisor Dan Stec, a Republican, and Glens Falls attorney Dennis Tarantino, a Democrat, are running for New York's new 114th Assembly District, which is currently the 113th (the new 114th will lose Hamilton County and pick up towns in Washington County) and represented by Republican Teresa Sayward. Stec said the state should have acted faster in addressing the allegations against Lopez.
"Speaker Sheldon Silver failed to do his job, and failed to protect these women from predatory sexual advances," he said. "To make matters worse, he used taxpayer money to silence Lopez' victims.
"Silver's failure to uphold the law and his willingness to circumvent and break reasonable rules of conduct and ethics should lead to his ousting as Speaker of the Assembly," Stec added. "He certainly is not speaking on behalf of the people and taxpayers. It's clear that this scandal highlights the still-precarious ethics rules in place. When elected to the Assembly, I will work to make sure our state ethics policies are clear and certain."
Tarantino said better transparency would lead to better enforcement of ethics issues in Albany. But he added that he doesn't think Silver should step down until JCOPE's investigation wraps up.
"I feel we should allow them to do their job and await their findings," Tarantino said. "These young women who have been victimized deserve a proper investigation by the proper authorities and should not be victimized again by a political agenda focused against Speaker Silver."
Tarantino credited Silver for changing procedures to make sure such cases are sent immediately to the Ethics Committee and not settled confidentially.
"I expect that all future cases will have no transparency issues," he said.
Bisso added that scandals like the Lopez harassment case are a black eye on New York's image.
"Do businesses really want to invest in a state where the money from the ridiculously high taxes is used to cover up the crimes of its leaders?" she asked.
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or email@example.com.