Sheldon Silver, Manhattan Democrat, has been New York Assembly Speaker since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. He is something of a political dinosaur himself. He’s always made my skin crawl, with his lugubriously sanctimonious baritone, usually mouthing platitudes of liberal orthodoxy, like support for rent control and other such economic absurdities.
My one personal encounter with Silver was on a flight from Albany to Washington. I assumed he was headed for some high-power meeting. Silly me. He was actually just traveling to New York City. Through Washington? Why do that? Why, to rack up frequent flyer miles, of course. On the taxpayer’s dime.
So now we have Silver arranging $100,000+ payoffs to settle two separate sexual harassment complaints against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who also happened to be the powerful Brooklyn Democratic leader. (Lopez has been characterized as a “serial groper,” and reportedly instructed female staffers not to wear bras.)
Misbehavior by NY State legislators is almost becoming “dog bites man” non-news. What is it about our legislature that makes it such a snakepit of depravity? The answer is the incumbent protection machine, so cunningly engineered as to render voters largely irrelevant. New York is the nation’s least democratic state; in many ways an unaccountable autocracy. But voters themselves are much to blame, lacking the wit to exercise their franchise effectively even when they can. State Comptroller Alan Hevesi was re-elected even while on a fast track to prison.
So legislators like Lopez can get away with a lot, politically at least, and it takes some crazy extreme behavior to be booted out of office. Like voting for gay marriage, in the case of State Senator Roy McDonald, who has lost his renomination primary. Of course, he’s a Republican, and GOP voters seem a lot less indulgent of their guys than are Dem voters.
Republicans, thanks to gerrymandering, still hang on, by their fingernails, to control of the State Senate, maintaining at least some checks-and-balances. If you think Albany’s political culture is smelly now, just wait till one party (Dems) gets unbridled control over the whole shebang.
Anyway, back to Silver and Lopez. The payoffs were secret – until they weren’t. Silver claimed he would have loved to disclose them, except that, alas and alack, they were subject to confidentiality agreements. Except that they weren’t, according to the attorney for the two women.
These payments, mind you, came out of state government coffers. I didn’t know there was a line item in the state budget for “secret settlements of sexual harassment complaints against legislators.” Learn something every day.
If a complaint relates to an official acting in his official capacity, taxpayer-funded settlement might be justified. In a case like this, however, it is impossible to defend. No conceivable public purpose was being served. Certainly nothing along the lines of “maintaining the Assembly’s good reputation.” Indeed, the whole sordid story demeans the instititution’s reputation even more. Silver was not acting for the benefit of the institution at all but, rather, solely to protect a political crony.
Not only did Sheldon Silver authorize these stinks-to-high-heaven payments, trying to cover up misdeeds by his crony, but he tried to cover up the payments, and then tried to cover up the cover-up by lying about confidentiality.
It’s said (reference Watergate) that “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” This one is a close call.
P.S. Multiple bodies are investigating all this. Silver has, at least, admitted that his handling of the matter was sub-optimal. Both Silver and Lopez will be re-elected (though Lopez has quit as Brooklyn Dem chief.)