By Michael Gormley
The Albany County district attorney has joined a special prosecutor to investigate a broad case of sexual harassment in the New York Assembly, a person familiar with the investigation said Wednesday.
The move comes as protesters in New York City called for Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez to resign after four female staffers accused the Democrat of sexual harassment.
"Every man in New York City should be standing, asking for his resignation," said Esteban Duran, 34, of Brooklyn, part of a group of about 15 men who gathered on the City Hall steps to chant slogans that included one in Spanish saying: "A people united don't want Vito anymore."
"Just because you're a politician who writes the laws doesn't mean that you can violate those same laws," said David Galarza, co-coordinator of a community organization called Casita Communal de Sunset Park.
Lopez was censured Aug. 24 by the Assembly ethics committee for accusations made in July. In June, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used $103,000 in public money in a secret settlement to end earlier sexual harassment claims against Lopez by former employees.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes asked Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, a Republican, to investigate the case as a special prosecutor. On Wednesday, a person familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press that Albany County District Attorney David Soares and his public integrity unit is now helping with the case. The person spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because Soares' role hadn't yet been announced.
Soares' spokeswoman Celia Logue declined to comment. Soares is facing a tough Democratic primary on Sept. 13 from Lee Kindlon, who has sharply criticized Soares' performance.
Lopez has refused to resign, even after Silver recommended it. Instead, Lopez said he's the victim of a political hit.
John Milgrim, the spokesman for the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, on Wednesday refused to say if the board is investigating the case. The commission met for two hours in closed-door session Tuesday. Citing state ethics law, Milgrim said any commission investigation is only confirmed when wrongdoing is found and reported.
Under JCOPE's complex rules, legislative appointees could in effect veto or limit any probe of a legislator.
Democrats have mostly been supportive of Silver while calling on Lopez to resign. But an attorney for some of Lopez's accusers said Silver's involvement should be examined more closely.
"I think that there should be a complete investigation and that would include Speaker Silver's role in this matter," said lawyer Gloria Allred.
Former state Ethics Commissioner Executive Director Karl Sleight said the law allows criminal prosecutors to wave off government ethics regulators so that state ethics enforcers don't unintentionally interfere with a criminal investigation.
"The statute now allows criminal investigators to put the ethics regulators on hold," he said. "The stakes are much higher, so traditional law enforcement should get deference."
Under state law, even if JCOPE finds Lopez engaged in illegal conduct, punishment would be decided by the Legislature's Ethics Commission, which can't expel him from office.
"Expulsion is not an option on the table for the existing ethics regulators," said Sleight, who's now in private practice.
Silver, just hours before he cast New York's delegates for President Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, said he's researching further legal action against Lopez. Silver said he spoke Wednesday with the Assembly ethics committee, which could still decide to handle the charges against Lopez that were involved in the secret settlement. Silver has said that although the settlement was "legal and ethical," he won't do it again.
Silver also dismissed calls by Republicans and a few Democrats for him to resign as "political rhetoric" while stepping up his drive to get Lopez to resign. Lopez said Silver was involved in illegal and unethical behavior by talking about the settlement that included a confidentiality agreement.
"He is being rather irrational, going out and attempting to deflect the true issues of the matter," Silver said.
AP writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.
UPDATED: 7 pm Sept. 5, 2012