Why is Vito Lopez still in the State Assembly?
It has been two weeks since word leaked out that we the taxpayers paid off, er, compensated two women who claimed that Mr. Lopez, a veteran legislator and chairman of Brooklyn’s Democratic county committee, harassed them in the workplace. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver approved a secret $103,000 payment each—and never saw fit to refer the case to the Assembly’s Ethics Committee.
But that very committee did look into other allegations against Mr. Lopez and found an appalling record of intimidation, inappropriate conduct and harassment. Subsequent news accounts reported that Mr. Lopez, who is 71 years old, frequently commented on the appearance of female staff members, and sometimes made inappropriate advances. Women interviewed by The New York Times said that they felt threatened by Mr. Lopez’s boorish behavior. The assemblyman brusquely told one staff member to remain quiet after she complained about unwanted and aggressive advances from an aide to one of Mr. Lopez’s allies.
In a better world, Mr. Lopez would be thoroughly ashamed and would already be in self-imposed exile. His Assembly seat would be vacant. He would not still be the leader of Brooklyn’s Democrats.
But, of course, we are not talking about a perfect world, or even a decent one. We are talking Albany politics, where shamelessness appears to be a prerequisite for elective office. Mr. Silver says he has asked Mr. Lopez to quit, but the boor from Brooklyn won’t listen. He has agreed to give up his party leadership role next month, and he has been stripped of his committee chairmanship. Apparently he believes this is punishment enough.
He’s wrong, but he is hardly the only lawmaker who sees public service as something other than a selfless, noble profession.
Take, for example, Queens Senator Shirley Huntley, who has been arrested and charged with funneling state money to a nonprofit organization that she controlled. Earlier this year, four—that’s right, four—onetime state senators found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Nicholas Spano of Westchester admitted to cheating on his taxes, Pedro Espada of the Bronx was convicted of misusing taxpayer money at health clinics he ran, Hiram Monserrate of Queens admitted to stealing funds meant for community organizations while he was a city councilman and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn was sentenced to prison in a bribery case.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised to change the way Albany does business, and he has done just that—to a point. But the Lopez case shows that the capital’s corrosive culture cannot be changed overnight.
The machinations involving Mr. Lopez and the $103,000 secret payoff are under investigation by a special prosecutor. With any luck, the investigation will provide Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature’s honorable members—there must be a few, anyway—with the willpower to demand systemic reform of state government.
These outrages simply can’t continue.