By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Brooklyn's district attorney asked a state court on Friday to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate New York state Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a local Democratic power broker who faces sexual harassment accusations from two female interns.
District Attorney Charles Hynes recused himself from the probe to avoid the appearance of impropriety, he said in a court filing. The Brooklyn Democratic Party, which Lopez has chaired for six years, endorsed Hynes in his re-election bid in 2009, and Hynes said he had engaged in talks with the party about an endorsement for his upcoming 2013 campaign.
"I believe that were I and my assistants to conduct the preliminary inquiry and, if called for, any ensuing investigation, there is a risk that it may create the appearance of impropriety," Hynes said in the application for a special prosecutor.
The scandal has roiled the state capital, Albany, with numerous Democratic leaders including Governor Andrew Cuomo calling on Lopez, 71, to resign. Lopez has refused, although he has agreed not to seek re-election as Brooklyn Democratic leader.
The Assembly's bipartisan Committee on Ethics and Guidance last week found Lopez created a "hostile workplace" after two interns complained he had kissed and groped them and made suggestive comments.
Lopez has denied the allegations. His lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, who has said Lopez failed to receive a fair hearing on the charges, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The accusations against Lopez "potentially could implicate provisions of the Penal Law, the Election Law, and/or other statutes," Hynes said, and warranted a preliminary investigation.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, was drawn into the controversy this week after The New York Times reported he had authorized a secret $103,080 payment in June, made up largely of state money, to settle prior harassment allegations against Lopez unrelated to the current claims.
Silver, New York's most powerful state legislator, apologized for keeping the payment confidential.
A lawyer for the two interns, Kevin Mintzer, called their experience in Lopez's office a "terrible ordeal" and said earlier this week they had not yet decided whether to pursue legal action.
Lopez repeatedly made comments about their physical appearance, their clothing and their private relationships from June until July, when the complaints were lodged, according to an August 24 letter in which Silver officially censured Lopez.
Silver said in the letter he was stripping Lopez of his seniority and barring him from employing staff under the age of 21.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said on Friday his office was prepared to assist state ethics officials "to ensure a full and fair investigation."
"If true, the actions of Assemblyman Lopez are reprehensible, and the decision of the Assembly to keep secret the provision of - and even the existence of - a settlement agreement was wholly inappropriate and contrary to the public interest," Schneiderman said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Peter Cooney)