By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- The state agency investigating the sexual harassment cases against a once-powerful Brooklyn assemblyman has sent its findings of ethics violations to two legislative panels for further potential action. The probe against Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics has been described by sources as explosive.
How far it goes in criticizing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for his handling of cash settlement cases by two former staffers who accused Lopez of sexually harassing them remains uncertain in the hour since the ethics panel announced it has sent the report to the Legislative Ethics Commission and to the Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance.
But Silver's office tonight was sounding upbeat. "As we have said throughout, we are confident that the commission found no legal or ethical violation by Speaker Silver or his staff and urge the Legislative Ethics Commission to release the report immediately,'' said Michael Whyland, a Silver spokesman. He did not immediately return calls seeking to determine if Silver or his staff have read the report.
Several members of the two separate legislative ethics panels said they had not yet seen the report, and other members have yet to return calls for comment.
JCOPE cannot impose penalities on legislators or legislative employees. The agency's findings in the Lopez case will be reviewed by the Legislative Ethics Commission. If it concurs with JCOPE's findings, it can determine penalties in the matter.
Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Long Island Democrat who co-chairs the legislative ethics panel, would not say if the report is being made public yet. "Given the confidential nature of the process, I cannot have any comment,'' the lawmaker said this evening.
The JCOPE statement this evening did not say if its findings were turned over to any criminal prosecutors.
Here is the brief statement by JCOPE, which began its investigation last year:
Pursuant to the statutory process as set forth in Executive Law §94(14-a), the Joint Commission on Public Ethics has today presented a Substantial Basis Investigation Report to the Legislative Ethics Commission ("LEC") for its review under Legislative Law §80. Subject to limited exceptions, the LEC must make the Report public within 45 days. Given the nature of this matter, the Joint Commission urges the LEC to act expeditiously.
Separately, the Joint Commission is referring certain findings in its report to the Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance, which has jurisdiction over Assembly rules and policies.