Women, Good Government Urge JCOPE: Fully Investigate Assembly and Lopez

For Immediate Release:

Contact: Susan Lerner

October 11, 2012


Women, Good Government Urge JCOPE: Fully Investigate Assembly and Lopez

Rally against culture of sexual harassment in Albany. Issue list of expectations to JCOPE for investigation of Assembly cover-up

The National Organization for Women, NYC (NOW-NYC) rallied today with Common Cause/NY to issue a clear set of expectations for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics’ (JCOPE) investigation into the Assembly sexual harassment scandal regarding Vito Lopez, and address allegations of a pervasive cultural of sexual harassment in Albany. Sexual harassment is both an issue of equality and economics for women and one that presents unique oversight issues. It has a real impact on women’s lives- their reputation, their livelihood, their career prospects.

Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY said:

“JCOPE has an opportunity to prove itself by conducting a real investigation which reveals how pervasive the problem is, whether other instances of sexual harassment were properly addressed as well as bringing forth the full facts of who knew what and when they knew it. A hurried report which fails to address the full scope of the Assembly, and Mr. Lopez’s, wrong doing is unacceptable.”

Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC said:

“We have a culture which dismisses sexual harassment as simply naughty behavior. When one in four women is harassed at work, this must be understood as both a good government and labor issue, with far reaching consequences for the economy. We’re long past excuses and apologies. We expect JCOPE to conduct a full investigation with the appropriate consequences under the law.

Moreover, to every elected official and candidate who in the immediate aftermath of the scandal tried to change the subject and say we should be focusing on more important things like the economy, here’s a wake up call: sexual harassment is an economic issue. Women lose their jobs over it. Women are denied promotions because of it. And women make up over half the voting base in New York State. We will not tolerate Albany’s culture of apathy toward sexual harassment.”

Statement by Gloria Steinem, women’s rights activist:

“Sexual harassment in the halls of democracy is not only a misuse of power, bur a betrayal of democracy itself. It not only deserves a penalty, but a more reliable and serious one.”

Expectations for JCOPE:

The investigation should be broad in scope in order to determine the duration and extent of Mr. Lopez’s actions and the Assembly’s responses to any extended course of misconduct. Sexual harassment is rarely an isolated incident, and this holds true in the case of Mr. Lopez where two sets of victims have already come forward with credible claims. News reports have suggested that Mr. Lopez has long operated with impunity and the public deserves accurate information addressing concerns that there may have been additional instances of misconduct, and if so, how they were addressed by the Assembly.

The investigation should be specific, covering in detail any and all acts perpetrated. The language of sexual harassment is too often vague and fails to paint an accurate picture of the abuse. Assembly Speaker Silver’s letter of censure was quite detailed; this should be the model for JCOPE.

JCOPE should issue a report that clearly identifies who knew what, when they knew it and what they did about it. Due to the secretive manner in which the Assembly conducted itself, the public requires a full airing of the facts.

Assembly Speaker Silver, and Assembly Staff (past and present), must be held responsible for their role as appropriate under the Assembly’s established policies on sexual harassment and ethics and the law. There must be recourse, which demonstrates that there are not two sets of rules: one of the powerful and well connected, and one for everyone else. Sexual harassment is a systemic problem, which must be pro-actively addressed by all employers and by the justice system. Cultural apathy is what creates the environment that allows sexual harassment to exist. It is unacceptable for political interests to be prioritized over the economic needs and safety of female employees.

The Assembly’s policy on sexual harassment must be implemented consistently and with transparency and should penalize the perpetrators of harassment, not current or future victims. All employees should feel confident that the stated procedure that will be followed for investigation, and that reports will be handled in a fair and timely manner. Credible findings of sexual harassment should result in appropriate penalties. Barring interns or employees under the age of 21 from specific positions, thereby reducing opportunities for young women and men to gain valuable work experience or employment is not an acceptable penalty.

Background: In August, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver censured Assemblyman Vito Lopez after the New York State Assembly ethics committee found Lopez guilty of sexually abusing two female employees. Later, details emerged about two prior complaints of sexual harassment from former Assembly staffers. In the earlier case, Speaker Silver approved a confidential settlement paid with public money to two women. In September, NOW-NYC filed a joint complaint with Common Cause/NY to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to investigate both the scope of Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s misconduct and the process by which the Assembly handled the complaints. In a parallel investigation, the Richmond County District Attorney, Dan Donovan, is also conducting a criminal investigation.