By Thomas Kaplan and Jesse McKinley (New York Times)
May 17, 2013
State Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, the once-powerful Brooklyn Democratic leader who has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, said on Friday that he would resign. But his offer only inflamed an uproar over his behavior because, a few words later, he said the resignation would not take effect for five weeks, and then he would run for a seat on the New York City Council.
The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, whose own handling of the initial allegations against Mr. Lopez has been widely criticized, vowed to press ahead with an effort to expel Mr. Lopez from the Legislature immediately.
And the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, called for an all-out effort to prevent Mr. Lopez from winning election to that body this fall.
“Vito Lopez should not spend another day in office, let alone a whole month,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement. “He should resign effective immediately, and if he does not, he must be expelled.”
The denunciations from the state’s leading Democratic officials demonstrated the remarkably steep fall of Mr. Lopez.
Until he was publicly accused of harassment, he had been a political boss with considerable influence. In Brooklyn, he has controlled a sprawling nonprofit agency, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, that served as a de facto political machine for him and his allies. And in Albany, he had clout as chairman of the Housing Committee.
Mr. Lopez’s determination to run for the Council also served as a reminder of the extraordinary staying power of incumbents in New York. Mr. Lopez was easily re-elected last fall, against only nominal opposition, even after he had been censured by the Assembly, and few are ruling out an election this fall to the Council.
The allegations against Mr. Lopez first became public last August, when Mr. Silver announced that an investigation by the Assembly’s ethics committee had found that accusations by two women were credible.
The New York Times later reported that the Assembly had previously settled two other harassment allegations against Mr. Lopez, but had not made those settlements public, and had not referred the accusations to the ethics committee.
This week, the anger over Mr. Lopez’s conduct intensified after the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics issued a report saying female legislative employees had told investigators that Mr. Lopez had groped them, sought to stay in hotel rooms with them, demanded they massage him, requested that they dress in more provocative clothing and urged them to write him flattering notes.
On Thursday, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Silver said they wanted the Assembly to expel Mr. Lopez.
Mr. Lopez, who is 71 and was elected to the Assembly in 1984, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, but on Friday morning he tried to quiet the furor by issuing a seven-sentence statement in which he said he would resign on the last scheduled day of the current legislative session.
“Because the citizens of my district voted me back into office last November by an overwhelming majority, I feel obligated to serve out this session of the Assembly,” he said. “I therefore announce that as of June 20, 2013, the last day of the session, I resign my position.”
That date was too far off for many.
“Lopez is living in la-la land if he doesn’t think his actions warrant immediate resignation,” said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat. “His lack of shame is almost as repugnant as his behavior.”
The New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women not only asked for Mr. Lopez’s expulsion, but also assailed Mr. Silver for what it called “his shameful cover-up and protection of a serial harasser.” The organization also said in a statement, “Up to this point, Speaker Silver has failed the many women who were harassed by Mr. Lopez, in turn failing every woman who walks the halls of the Capitol.”
Mr. Silver, who has acknowledged erring in his handling of the initial complaints against Mr. Lopez, now appears determined to move swiftly toward expulsion. (The Assembly has not expelled anyone since it ejected five socialists in the early 1920s.)
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Silver circulated a draft resolution that would begin the process of expelling Mr. Lopez by asking the Assembly’s ethics committee to recommend sanctions against him. Mr. Lopez had already been stripped of his committee chairmanship and seniority privileges last August.
“Assembly Member Lopez should no longer be in public office,” Mr. Silver’s spokesman, Michael Whyland, said. “We will move forward with our resolution on Monday.”
Much of the anger on Friday was focused on Mr. Lopez’s announcement that he intended to pursue a race for the Council. He is a candidate for a seat now held by Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
Ms. Reyna once served as Mr. Lopez’s chief of staff, and won her seat with his backing, but later had a falling-out with him. The heavily Democratic district includes parts of Bushwick and Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, as well as Ridgewood, Queens, and overlaps significantly with Mr. Lopez’s Assembly district. His most formidable opponent in that race is another Democrat, Antonio Reynoso, who is Ms. Reyna’s chief of staff.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Reynoso said that Mr. Lopez was “as ineffective a representative as you can possibly have,” given the accusations against him, and questioned why he would seek another office. “I think it’s extremely selfish, more so than anything else,” Mr. Reynoso said.
Over the last two months, Mr. Lopez has raised a little over $38,000 for his Council campaign. Mr. Reynoso has raised about $87,000 over all and has three times as much cash on hand as Mr. Lopez. The landscape for Mr. Lopez is obviously complicated: a fund-raiser that he held in April was picketed by a group of activists who held signs that read, “Let’s keep N.Y. City Council a molester-free zone.”
Ms. Quinn, a Democratic candidate for mayor whose rise to Council speaker in 2006 was assisted by Mr. Lopez, said in a telephone interview on Friday: “Vito Lopez running for City Council is one of the most offensive things I have ever seen happen in New York City politics. I am disgusted by his behavior, and I am going to work incredibly hard to make sure he never steps foot in City Hall.”
And Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, a government watchdog group, said: “It’s unconscionably laughable that he still thinks he can get elected and serve the public as an elected official. His interest in running for City Council, it just shows how out of touch with reality he is.”
But Mr. Lopez is clearly undaunted.
“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,” Mr. Lopez said in his statement. “I believe that the voters of the community should decide who should represent them.”