New York has a history of disgusting political sex scandals. Perhaps that's because we're open-minded -- it takes something ultra-gross to shock us.
Assemblyman Vito Lopez fits the bill. The powerful Democratic boss in Brooklyn apparently had a fetish for sticking his hand between the thighs of his least powerful female employees.
Disgraced former Gov. Elliot Spitzer's dalliance with prostitutes at least provided us with a few laughs. And disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner also gave us a chuckle or two by launching a photo of his bulging underwear into cyberspace.
But no one is laughing at Lopez.
The state Assembly's ethics committee (read: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver), suddenly announced on Friday that Lopez had disgraced the state legislature with his conduct toward female workers in his office. It was a laundry list of sexual harassment -- repeated comments about women's bodies, clothing and boyfriends, "multiple instances" of unwanted touching and an attempt to kiss a woman who he assigned to travel with him to Atlantic City.
Lopez topped this off by forcing the young women to write essays "about how much they loved their jobs and cared about you, and that you criticized their notes for being insufficiently effusive," according to the letter Silver sent to Lopez announcing the committee's findings.
Silver looked like the fast-acting hero in the sordid saga. In the past, he'd been slow to react when members of his party got caught sleeping with interns or watching porn with interns or, in one case, when a female employee in the legislature charged one of the speaker's top aides with assault. But this time it was different.
Well, actually, not so much. The Times reported that Silver had previously settled a sexual harassment complaint against Lopez -- quietly, behind the scenes and at least partially with taxpayer money.
We pay a lot in taxes in New York. If it's going to medical care for the impoverished, count me in. If it's going to hush up sex harassment charges against Vito Lopez, I want a refund.
Most of the world has never heard the 71-year-old Lopez's name, but he looms large in the world of New York City politics. For years, Lopez has been the dispenser of patronage, selector of candidates for Brooklyn Democrats to nominate, and an overall power who was courted by anyone who wanted to move up in Democratic politics -- including Caroline Kennedy, who made a pilgrimage to ask Lopez for his support when she was trying to get the Hillary Clinton Senate seat.
His disgrace teaches a lot about why anybody would run for state legislature. There are, of course, a few who do it to make New York a better place. There must also be some who simply decided even Albany was more interesting than working for their uncle's law firm. But for the vast majority, you only need to follow the money.
Here's what Lopez lost when he lost Silver's favor: his chairmanship of the Assembly Housing Committee and a $12,500 leadership stipend he get on top of his $79,500-plus-expenses legislative salary. Plus, Silver said he was gradually going to reduce Lopez's staff budget from $450,000 a year to $85,000. Gradually.)
Even more important was the patronage. As the stories about Lopez' disgrace noted,
his girlfriend, Angela Battaglia (Lopez is divorced) was making $343,000 working for the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a non-profit the Brooklyn boss that receives tens of millions of dollars a year in public funds. (Battaglia also sits on the city's Planning Commission.)
This is what New York politicians do. They direct state and city money, plus gifts from friendly supporters, to non-profits with worthy-sounding goals like helping seniors, kids, or the overall community. And the groups do indeed help people, at least some of the people some of the time. They hand out free turkeys at Thanksgiving, sponsor Little League teams, and run day care programs for the elderly. They also hire relatives and political supporters of the politician in question, often at wildly inflated salaries.
Just as the Lopez story was spreading, a state senator from Queens, Shirley Huntley, held a strange, garbled press conference to announce she was probably going to be arrested in a corruption investigation. Earlier this year, one of her aides and three others were arrested on corruption charges, involving a nonprofit to which Huntley had funneled money. (Huntley turned herself in on Monday.)
Meanwhile, over in the Bronx, Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera, the sister of the City Council president, has been the target of a series of reports in the Post that charge she had a pattern of putting her boyfriends on the public payroll. One, who had no experience in economic development or running nonprofits, got $75,000 salary to a nonprofit called the Bronx Council for Economic Development.
While Rivera seems to be cruising toward victory in the primaries next month, Lopez is facing calls for resignation from top politicians around the state. (He says he isn't going anywhere, but things don't look great when you're 71 and the Post is referring to you in headlines as "Horndog.")
If he does go, it'll be the sex that did him in. All around New York, his fellow pols will continue to spend your money on salaries for their friends and family members, and special "contracts" for their supporters. That won't change, although they might be just a little bit more cautious about sticking their hands between their female employees' legs.
I guess that's something.