By Michael Virtanen
Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez was stripped of his Assembly committee chairmanship and seniority on Friday after the Assembly Committee on Ethics and Guidance found he violated the chamber's sexual harassment policy.
The bipartisan eight-member committee unanimously found that 71-year-old Williamsburg-Greenpoint Assemblyman created a hostile workplace, including verbal and physical sexual abuse, and that his response to the allegations was "not credible." Complaints by two staff members included repeated unwelcome comments about their bodies and attire, as well as attempts to kiss and put his hands between the legs of one of them when he required that she travel with him to Atlantic City, N.J., in July.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he accepted the findings. In a public censure letter to Lopez on Friday, he said he was removing him immediately as chairman of the Committee on Housing, banning him from any other leadership positions, reducing his staff allocation to freshman levels, requiring him to get supplemental sexual harassment training and prohibiting him from employing any staff under the age 21 or interns.
Calls to Lopez weren't immediately returned. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1984. He has been a longtime leader of the Kings County Democratic Committee and is divorced with adult children.
"The Assembly has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment, and we are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for all our employees," Silver said.
"The Committee on Ethics and Guidance has been diligent in thoroughly and fairly investigating the allegations made in this case."
Silver, leader of the Assembly's Democratic majority, wrote to Lopez that the committee found "pervasive unwelcome verbal conduct by you toward both complainants" from June until they made their sexual harassment complaints in July and that the unwelcome verbal and physical conduct escalated over time. Other incidents included putting his hand on a staffer's leg and after she removed it trying to put his hand between her thighs; holding a staffer's hand and playing with her hair; and requiring both to write to him about how much they loved their jobs and cared about him.
Michael Whyland, Silver's spokesman, said there is no provision for an internal appeal.
Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said Lopez should resign from his legislative seat and chairmanship of the county party. The group also called on the Joint Commission on Public Integrity to do a broad investigation.