By Assemblyman Will Barclay
As the cliche goes, when it rains it pours.
This certainly holds true as a description of the numerous scandals that have arisen as of late in both Albany and Washington. This week in Albany, most attention was rightfully focused on the release of a report by the Joint Committee on Public Ethics (JCOPE) that summarized its investigation of sexual harassment claims against Vito Lopez – the now former Assemblyman who was an ally of Assembly Speaker Silver and the former Brooklyn Democratic Party chair.
The report detailed implied and explicit sexual behavior exhibited by Lopez toward various female staffers.
The report also was highly critical of how the Speaker of the Assembly and his staff handled complaints made by the female staffers.
Lopez’s behavior is intolerable and I am pleased that he saw fit to resign from office once it became clear that he would likely be expelled from the Assembly.
However, perhaps more disturbing than Lopez’s behavior is the way in which the complaints by the female staffers were handled by the Speaker and his staff.
At the Speaker’s direction, these first complaints were confidentially settled with quiet payments made to the staffers.
As a result, at least initially, the consequences for Lopez were virtually non-existent.
He was even allowed to hire two more female staffers to replace the ones who had now left because of the harassment.
Shockingly, the report indicates that these two female staffers were subject to harassment that was even more egregious than the original harassment.
An outsider will rightfully ask, how does this happen?
The answer is because the Assembly does not have an independent committee to investigate complaints made against Assembly members and staff.
The Speaker and his staff unilaterally decide how complaints are to be handled.
Apparently, from time to time they refer cases to the Assembly Ethics committee and other times they do not.
Worse, the Assembly Ethics committee is far from independent.
For a number of years, I served as the ranking minority member on the Assembly Ethics committee.
During my time on that committee, we investigated two complaints against members of the Assembly.
The investigations were undertaken by the Speaker’s staff and generally directed by the chairman of the committee who is appointed by the Speaker.
Nothing during those investigation led me to believe they were incomplete or that the Speaker influenced their outcome.
However, after reading JCOPE’s Lopez report, I question what other complaints may have been out there and how were they handled.
Have other investigations by the ethics committee been handled appropriately?
Under the current structure we do not know; that’s dangerous and clearly we need to reform this system.
That is why this week I introduced legislation that will establish an Assembly ethics committee that is truly independent of the Speaker.
This legislation would set up an eight-member committee made up of four Republicans and four Democrats.
The committee’s agenda would be determined by co-chairs appointed by both the Assembly minority and majority parties.
Most importantly, the legislation requires that any complaints made against an Assembly member or a staff member would have to be referred to the committee.
The committee will have the power to investigate the claim or defer the complaint to another appropriate investigative entity.
The committee will also be able to impose various penalties or, in certain cases, recommend penalties be imposed by vote of the full Assembly.
This common sense reform legislation needs to pass immediately to protect the integrity of the Assembly.
We can no longer have a system that allows the Speaker of the Assembly to have power over complaints.
My legislation will protect the public’s interest not the political bosses.
The people of New York deserve better and now is the time to act.
If you have any questions or comments on this or any other issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.
My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by email at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.
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