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Influential Assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic party boss Vito Lopez broke state harassment rules by groping, attempting to kiss, and engaging in sexually charged discussions with employees, according to a panel of his peers in Albany that demoted and punished the long-time legislator for the alleged transgressions.
The Assembly’s Committee on Ethics and Guidance forced Lopez to cede his powerful role as chair of the Committee on Housing after two employees of the North Brooklyn politician complained he harassed them between early June and mid-July.
“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,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D–New York), who removed Lopez from the leadership role.
Staffers at Lopez’s office accused the legislator of improprieties including:
• Placing his hand on a woman’s leg and, after she removed it, putting his hand “between her upper things … as far up between her legs as [he] could go,” according to a letter Silver sent to the legislator chastising him for his alleged behavior and outlining the punishment.
• Attempting to kiss one employee until she “struggled to fend [him] off” during a mandatory trip to Atlantic City, then placing his hand between her legs on the drive back, according to the letter.
• Holding one staffer’s hand and playing with her hair.
• Making “repeated comments” about his employees’ looks, clothing, bodies, and relationships.
• Forcing the complainants to write letters to him stating “how much they loved their jobs and cared about [Lopez]” — then “criticized their notes for being insufficiently effusive.”
Lopez’s office declined to comment on the allegations against him, or the punishment imposed on him.
Not only will Lopez lose his position as Housing chair — a title that earns him an additional $12,500 and plenty of political clout — he’ll also forfeit all of the perks of “seniority” that he has racked up over 28 years in office, which means a smaller budget for staff.
Lopez and his office employees must also take a training course on sexual harassment, and the legislator will no longer be permitted to take on interns or hire anyone under the age of 21.
Veteran political watchdog Hank Sheinkopf believes the allegations could cripple Lopez’s future.
“He’s going to have trouble holding onto the Democratic leadership,” said Sheinkopf. “The insurgent Democrats will have a higher chance of winning now.”
Critics — including Lopez’s inner-party rivals — were quick to lash out against the party boss.
“Vito Lopez should immediately resign as Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman,” district leader Lincoln Restler (D–Williamsburg), who has tried to throw a wrench into Lopez’s party machine. “We need a full investigation to see if this is a pattern of behavior in Vito’s office.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D–Park Slope) also called for Lopez to step down.
“I call upon Assemblyman Lopez to do the only honorable thing by immediately resigning his positions as a Member of the Assembly and as the County Chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party,” said Nadler.
Lopez — who remains under investigation for funneling $69 million to his Bushwick-based housing nonprofit — is running uncontested in the Democratic primary in September. He will face Republican candidate Richy Garcia in the general election.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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