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Springville Journal editorial: When lawmakers break the law

SPRINGVILLE — According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is against the law to force an employee to endure “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

But, last August, when New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver heard that another assemblyman had been accused of sexual harassment, Silver signed a secret $103,000 settlement and swept the matter under the proverbial rug.

Eight female staff members have accused Democrat Assemblyman Vito Lopez, 71, of groping them, telling them to wear low-cut clothing and high heels, asking them to touch his cancerous tumors and requiring them to “write flattering and flirtatious memos to him, that he later tried to use, to discredit their accusations,” according to NBC and The New York Times.

Per Assembly rules, matters of this nature must be sent to an ethics committee. But Silver let the issue rest and Lopez announced that, after finishing the legislative session, he would pursue a candidacy for New York City Council member, where he would again come in contact with young female employees.

Thanks to Silver’s lack of action, Lopez remained in his Assembly seat, until a group of state ethics reviewers released a report that not only detailed Lopez’s wrongdoing, but also “offered a scathing assessment” of Silver’s shielding the accused, according to The New York Times.

After those reports surfaced, Lopez denied any wrongdoing and said he would not resign. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “There should be a zero tolerance policy, when it comes to sexual harassment, and we must now send a clear message that this behavior is not tolerated.”

The Assembly was scheduled to vote May 27 on a resolution that would begin the process of expelling Lopez.

On May 25, Lopez said, in a letter to Silver, “I hereby resign the public office of member of Assembly from the 53rd Assembly District, Kings County, effective 9 a.m. Monday, May 20, 2013.”

Shame on Silver and the other lawmakers who left it up to this lawbreaker to decide when it was time to leave our Assembly.

The women who were mistreated deserved better than the issue’s being swept under the rug. The New York voters also deserve better than to have their elected officials abuse their governmental roles and use the employees we pay for with our tax dollars for their own gain.

“We must do everything we can, to ensure this type of behavior is never tolerated or allowed to occur again,” said Melissa DeRosa, a spokesperson for Cuomo.

Great fighting words, but Lopez is the one who is laughing all the way to the bank. Thanks to some loophole in the system, he has been collecting an annual pension of $64,634, while receiving his legislative salary. Although his regular Assembly check will cease, following his reluctant resignation, his pension will not.

The situation the Assembly found itself in, nine months ago, could have been used to set that zero tolerance example the governor called for. Instead, the governing body’s leader turned a blind eye to the wrongdoing, a lawbreaker was allowed to remain in office and eight young women spent even more time tolerating unacceptable behavior.

Meanwhile, the state of New York is continuing to handsomely pay the perpetrator and will let him place his name on yet another ballot. I am sure that current and future elected miscreants are sitting up and taking notice. A dangerous precedent has been set.

Lopez should be required to pay for his actions. Silver should also take the fall for so severely dropping the ball and allowing this misbehavior to continue.

We should all be able to feel safe, in our own workplaces. It is the law, after all.

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