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Judge Widens Scope of Prosecutor’s Investigation in Lopez Case
A judge authorized a special prosecutor on Friday to expand his criminal investigation into sexual harassment claims that two female staff members brought against Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, giving the prosecutor the power to examine whether crimes were committed when public and private money was paid to settle similar complaints brought by two other female staff members. The two-page order issued by the judge, Fern A. Fisher, the deputy chief administrative judge for the New York City courts, broadened the authority that she had conferred on the special prosecutor, the Staten Island district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., in an initial order she issued on Aug. 31. From Editor Betsy Combier: New York State's Sheldon Silver must be held accountable for the power and terror of his reign over New York State.
Judge Widens Scope of Prosecutor’s Investigation in Lopez Case
By DANNY HAKIM and WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM, NY TIMES
A judge authorized a special prosecutor on Friday to expand his criminal investigation into sexual harassment claims that two female staff members brought against Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, giving the prosecutor the power to examine whether crimes were committed when public and private money was paid to settle similar complaints brought by two other female staff members.
The two-page order issued by the judge, Fern A. Fisher, the deputy chief administrative judge for the New York City courts, broadened the authority that she had conferred on the special prosecutor, the Staten Island district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., in an initial order she issued on Aug. 31.
The move — which will most likely focus attention on the role of the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, in approving the settlement — came as the Lopez scandal continued to make waves in political circles and engulfed the state’s new ethics commission in controversy of its own.
The commission itself also hastily called a special meeting for Monday morning, though it did not reveal its purpose. Adding to the chaos, the most outspoken member of the commission, Ravi Batra, said in a statement that he had complained to federal law enforcement officials about political interference in the commission’s operations, though it was not clear how federal laws might come into play. He resigned a few hours after issuing the statement.
Also on Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo threatened to impanel a special commission to investigate the scandal, using powers conferred on governors by the state’s century-old Moreland Act. His announcement came a day after The New York Times reported that the ethics commission had, at least initially, limited its own formal investigation to Mr. Lopez, and did not include the issues now being reviewed by the special prosecutor.
Speaking in a radio interview with his predecessor, David A. Paterson, Mr. Cuomo said the state was taking a harder line on ethical lapses, despite the limited approach to the Lopez scandal.
“Bad things will happen, but we have zero tolerance for allowing it to continue,” said Mr. Cuomo, who like Mr. Lopez and Mr. Silver is a Democrat. “It’s not a good thing, and the publicity about it is not good, and it’s not good on a personal level. Sometimes you think about the example we’re setting for our kids.”
Mr. Cuomo, addressing Mr. Paterson, added, “It is life, Governor, and it is reality, and it is going to happen.”
The misconduct claims surfaced on Aug. 24, when Mr. Silver said he was censuring Mr. Lopez, 71, after the bipartisan Assembly Ethics Committee said it had found credible evidence that Mr. Lopez had groped, kissed and verbally harassed two female employees. Reports soon emerged that Mr. Silver had approved the secret settlement of similar claims against Mr. Lopez brought by two other women.
Judge Fisher said in her order that she was acting in response to a request filed by Mr. Donovan on Thursday.
She wrote that, in addition to investigating possible crimes related to the two claims that had led to the censure, Mr. Donovan was “also authorized to investigate allegations that funds, both public and private, were disbursed in and around June 2012” to settle the earlier complaints, “in possible violation of the Penal Law, the Election Law, the Public Officers Law and other statutes, and to prosecute any charges arising out of that conduct.”
A spokesman for Mr. Donovan, Peter N. Spencer, declined to comment on the new order.
Mr. Lopez’s lawyer, Gerald B. Lefcourt, who has repeatedly denied the sexual harassment claims that have been leveled against his client, said he was confident that when Mr. Donovan “looks at all the facts concerning Assemblyman Lopez, he will find that no prosecution is warranted.”
A spokesman for Mr. Silver said, “The speaker has made it very clear that he desires a thorough investigation to get all the facts out regarding this matter.”
The State Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, the state’s top Republican, also weighed in on Friday, calling for “a thorough investigation of the Assembly’s handling” of the Lopez case and urging all of the state’s ethics commissioners to vote in support of such an investigation.
Judge Fisher had appointed Mr. Donovan in response to a request by the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, that a special prosecutor be named to investigate Mr. Lopez, who is also the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader. Mr. Hynes recused himself from the case after citing his own political ties to Mr. Lopez, who has supported his re-election campaigns.
Cuomo pitches a fit
Last Updated: 1:05 AM, September 8, 2012
Posted: 11:33 PM, September 7, 2012
Gov. Cuomo’s hand-crafted Albany ethics watchdog has been handed its first serious test — and it promptly flunked.
The panel agreed to take up Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s scandalous harassment of a former aide — but specifically exempted Speaker Sheldon Silver’s secret, taxpayer-funded coverup of the case from any scrutiny whatsoever.
This caused Cuomo to blow a gasket yesterday, threatening to convene a so-called Moreland Act commission investigation of the affair if things weren’t set right — including the refusal of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to probe Silver’s conduct.
Whereupon JCOPE announced it would convene in public on Monday — presumably to widen the Lopez probe to incorporate Silver’s involvement.
Gubernatorial spokesman Josh Vlasto cited reports that JCOPE members appointed by Silver and other legislative leaders had overruled staffers who wanted a broader inquiry.
Which, as Common Cause New York’s Susan Lerner rightly noted, “confirms [our] worst fears . . . that the commission is set up in a way that encourages gridlock designed to protect powerful elected officials.”
Translated into plain English, Lerner accused JCOPE of participating in a new coverup — a fear apparently shared by state Supreme Court Justice Fern Fisher, who last week named Staten Island DA Dan Donovan as a special prosecutor in the case.
Fisher acted after Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes recused himself — and yesterday she broadened Donovan’s authority.
In response to a sealed application from Donovan, Fisher authorized him to investigate not just Lopez’s behavior but also “allegations that funds, both public and private, were disbursed . . . in possible violation of the Penal Law, the Election Law, the Public Officers Law and other statutes.”
All in all, the scandal presents Cuomo with a real political dilemma.
He doesn’t want to endanger Silver’s speakership, given both their current amiable relationship and that fact that there’s no competent successor to Silver in sight.
But he’s also the governor who vowed to end Albany’s culture of corruption.
And nothing epitomizes that culture more than Silver using taxpayer money to protect one of his most politically powerful members.
Which is why Silver is the real story — and scandal — here.
That JCOPE had to be pushed into recognizing this is disconcerting. What Cuomo does about it will be instructive.
Hon. Fern A. Fisher
Justice Fisher serves as Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts and is also charged with state-wide responsibility for access to justice issues. Justice Fisher's career started in the Civil Court as a Legal Services attorney practicing in Manhattan Housing Court. Justice Fisher served as Deputy Director of Harlem Legal Services, Inc. and as an Assistant Attorney General of the New York State Department of Law. For four years, she provided pro bono legal services to Harlem-based community organizations as a project director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. In 1989, she was appointed Judge of the Housing Part of the Civil Court, and later, in 1990, was elected to the Civil Court where she served as Deputy Supervising Judge. Justice Fisher was elected in 1993 to the Supreme Court of the State of New York where she was assigned to the City and Matrimonial Parts. In December 1996, she was appointed Administrative Judge of the Civil Court of the City of New York where she served until March 2009 when she was appointed to her current position.
Justice Fisher contributes the views from the bench in Residential Landlord-Tenant Law in New York, a practice guide by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing. She served as the host of a series of television shows on housing issues for Crosswalk's, a public service cable show. Justice Fisher is a founding member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association and is a member of Judicial Friends (an affiliate of the Judicial Council of the National Bar Association), the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the New York County Lawyers Association. Justice Fisher also served as the Chair of the Housing Court (Judges) Disciplinary Committee and Chair of the Anti-Bias Committee of the New York County Supreme Court. In 2006 she was the recipient of the Harvard Law School Gary Bellow Public Interest Award. She received her B.A. summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa in 1975 from Howard University and a J.D. in 1978 from Harvard Law School.
Information about Judge Fisher is also available on the Judicial Directory.