Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said today that he will not file criminal charges against Assemblyman Vito Lopez in a sexual harassment case, but he criticized state leaders for a secret, taxpayer-funded settlement with Lopez’s young female accusers.
In a seven-page statement, Donovan said there was no criminal conduct found in the high-profile case involving the troubled Brooklyn assemblyman. He said the $103,000 payment to two young female aides of Lopez wasn’t handled properly by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the offices of the attorney general and state comptroller.
“It must be emphasized that the manner in which these entities dealt with the allegations fell short of what the public has the right to expect,” Donovan, a special prosecutor on the case, wrote. “In fact, had the subject matter of the settlement in June 2012 been promptly referred to the Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance for investigation, or had the settlement not included a confidentiality clause, the incidents involving the second two complainants in June and July 2012 might have been avoided.”
Lopez was accused last summer of harassing two female aides, and the state Assembly Ethics Committee stripped Lopez, the former Brooklyn Democratic chairman, of his leadership positions in the chamber. Silver was criticized for the secret settlement with the accusers, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office signed off on the deal, which included a confidentiality agreement.
“The desire to shield the Assembly led to the negotiation of a settlement agreement contingent on a confidentiality provision, one crafted at the request not of the complainants but of Assembly Member Lopez,” Donovan said.
The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics conducted its own investigation of the case, and Donovan had requested the commission wait to release its findings until his probe was completed. JCOPE recently warned that it would soon release its report whether Donovan was finished or not.
Donovan, a Republican who ran for attorney general against Schneiderman in 2010, said the Attorney General’s Office should have provided more guidance to the Assembly and rejected attempts to include a confidentiality agreement, saying, “The public interest against a confidentiality clause could not be stronger than in the present case, one involving misconduct by an elected official.”
Donovan said the Attorney General’s Office nor the state Comptroller’s Office raised any objection to inclusion of such a confidentiality clause.
“At no time does the State Comptroller make independent inquiries into the legitimacy of a claim or the propriety of a payment,” Donovan wrote. “Worse, because of the limits of the computer software used to track payments, there is no mechanism in place for the Comptroller’s Office to record the nature or true purpose of a payment.”
There was no immediate comment from the Comptroller Office or Attorney General’s Office or the Assembly on Donovan’s report.
“The public has the right to know how the public fisc is being spent, and the classification of a legal settlement on behalf of an elected official should never be confidential or generically classified as one for “legal services,” Donovan concluded.