Analysis: Is secretive Albany really getting it?

September 5, 2012 By Michael Gormley, Associated Press
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It would be easy to view this past week of accusations of sexual harassment and a cover-up as a return to Albany’s bad old days.

It’s ugly, for sure: allegations of more groping of young women staffers, a secret deal using taxpayers’ money, less than forthright statements from more politicians. It’s the kind of stuff for which Albany has been known for decades.

But so far, there are some potentially important differences.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said a mistake was made, a rare admission in New York politics, and that he won’t again mediate a settlement concerning a member’s misconduct. The settlement was cloaked from public view by a confidentiality agreement that Silver said honored the accusers’ request for privacy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a quick recommendation that the new and potentially powerful ethics board he created should investigate, signaling that subpoenas from the Joint Commission on Public Integrity run by his former and current appointees would soon fly.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, both Democrats, released internal emails in a new level of disclosure, albeit only after hounding by reporters and word of the impending subpoenas.

So Albany has hardly become some shining city on a hill.

This edging toward transparency, after all, came only after politicians were caught, although that has rarely motivated full disclosure from most Albany pols in the past.

The Assembly Ethics Committee on Aug. 24 censured Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a powerful Brooklyn Democrat, on charges he sexually harassed female staffers.

Silver stripped him of his leadership, seniority perks and power, a deep gash to Albany pols who can’t be removed from office until they are convicted of a felony or legislators expel them.

But it turns out that was the second accusation against Lopez. Just weeks earlier, in June, Silver and his counsel had entered into a secret, $103,000 settlement of accusations by other female staffers, in a deal kept from the taxpayers who paid for it.

After the deal was revealed by the New York Times, Silver confirmed it and released the voucher showing the payment. The Democrat then vowed never to do it again because it conflicted with the transparency required in a democracy. As Silver was accused of a cover-up in tabloid headlines, Schneiderman and DiNapoli said only underlings knew of the private settlement with public money and then only had cursory involvement. The attorney general’s office called it an “informal” role.

The emails showed a greater back-and-forth, in which three drafts of the settlement were shared. It included a gag order that would cost the women a $10,000 penalty if they talked.

Lopez maintains he never sexually harassed anyone and the draft settlement states he didn’t admit guilt.

Eric Schneiderman. AP PhotoDemocratic Sen. Liz Krueger says her colleagues are abuzz about how long the accusations were known without anyone taking action. She told The Associated Press there is “a culture within the highest levels of government in this state — the legislative and the executive — that we are above the rules and the law.”

That culture is what didn’t change, despite some hints of promise that it may.

For example, a far more pervasive way of handling sexual harassment and other misconduct by lawmakers is to quietly transfer, promote or find another job for staffers who make accusations, several legislators and staffers told the AP this week. And although the Assembly, Senate Republican majority and governor’s office said they never handled other secret sexual harassment settlements, no records are kept of these quiet transfers that protect lawmakers.

“It’s a closed culture. It’s time we face it,” said Bill Samuels, co-founder of the EffectiveNY think tank and the New Roosevelt good-government group.

He noted other scandals in August — Sen. Shirley Huntley indicted by the attorney general with DiNapoli over a 2006 pork-barrel grant to a nonprofit organization she founded — and claims that Bronx Assemblyman Naomi Rivers put two boyfriends on the public payroll.

“It’s time we totally rethink what the rules are,” Samuels said.

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