New York’s Democratic scandal that includes lurid tales of a groping assemblyman and a secret settlement by the powerful Assembly speaker using public funds is in the unlikely hands of a Republican from Staten Island.
Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, the son of a longshoreman and factory worker, finds himself back on center stage in New York politics. He is in a familiar role as special prosecutor, this time running the sexual harassment criminal investigation that involves some of Albany’s top Democrats and could touch on the attorney general, a job he couldn’t capture in an underdog bid in 2010.
He is investigating claims from July that powerful Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, 71, groped, kissed and made repeated inappropriate comments to young female staffers. Donovan also is empowered to investigate a June settlement in which Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used $103,000 in public money to secretly settle claims by two other staffers against Lopez.
A labor attorney for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman discussed drafts of Silver’s settlement by email with an Assembly lawyer and a lawyer for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The emails that were released to reporters show the attorney general and comptroller lawyers didn’t approve the settlement in the emails, but neither did they object or question it.
The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which met behind closed doors for two hours Tuesday, isn’t talking about whether it will investigate the settlement or just focus on Lopez. It’s a major test of the commission that has had a rocky start and a penchant for secrecy.
Loaded with Democratic appointees, the commission has complex rules that require at least one of Silver’s appointees, or the appointee of the other Democratic legislative leader with appointments, Sen. John Sampson, to authorize an investigation of Silver’s role. That veto power -- made in a secret vote -- has long been a concern about the way JCOPE was designed.
Further, JCOPE staff dominated by former aides to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo may decide the commission doesn’t have jurisdiction to investigate the role of Silver, who has kept substantial support among powerful Democratic allies. Lopez, meanwhile, is a weak, easy target.
Even if JCOPE finds Lopez violated ethics law, he likely couldn’t face a greater penalty than Silver meted out Aug. 24 when he stripped him of his leadership position and stipend.
Silver wants a "full inquiry," said his spokesman, Michael Whyland. "A full investigation will show that all actions were legal and taken in good faith to protect the victims."
But any action by JCOPE likely awaits Donovan. Government ethics boards usually step aside during a criminal investigation to avoid even unintentional interference.
Donovan has been here before.
In 2011, as special prosecutor, he convicted a Democratic Brooklyn political leader for posing as an attorney to help a relative during a court hearing. That same year, Donovan convicted Democratic state Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn of a misdemeanor after a confrontation with a photographer.
In 2007, Donovan took political heat when he recused himself from a case against a grandson of Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro. That enraged and made an enemy of the powerful Molinaro, who helped put Donovan in office.
"It was a smart move to bring in an outside, objective set of eyes to this (Lopez) investigation," said Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union good-government group. Dadey said the probe should include Silver’s role.
"We aren’t pointing any fingers, we just think there needs to be an outside prosecutor," Dadey said.
Donovan isn’t just an
outsider, but outside the whole clubby galaxy of
In his 2010 race against Schneiderman, Donovan removed himself in July during his campaign from consideration for endorsement by the Independence Party. He said he had to "in order to preserve the integrity of my office and the integrity of any possible investigation" into a press report of a political quid pro quo involving party Chairman Frank MacKay and his wife.
Just before the election, Donovan announced he found "no credible evidence" of a crime. But the party had already endorsed Schneiderman.
"It shows he didn’t play
a political game," MacKay said Friday. "Dan Donovan and his office have always conducted themselves