By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver must face claims that he “aided and abetted” a former assemblyman’s sexual harassment of two young female employees by failing to take official action, a U.S. judge ruled on Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres rejected Silver’s bid to throw out the lawsuit, which was filed last summer by Victoria Burhans and Chloe Rivera in federal court in Manhattan. The women accused longtime Brooklyn power broker Vito Lopez of subjecting them to a barrage of unwanted sexual advances.
The decision did not address the merits of the case.
“At the motion to dismiss phase, to keep their claims alive, plaintiffs need only provide well-pleaded factual allegations, not evidence, of Silver’s discriminatory actions and intent,” Torres wrote. “Plaintiffs have done so.”
Bettina Plevan, a lawyer for Silver, in an email said she was "confident that when the evidence is presented the Speaker will prevail on all claims."
The Lopez scandal swept through Albany in August 2012, when the state legislature publicly censured Lopez, 73, after an investigation found he had groped and harassed female staffers without their consent.
Silver had previously helped broker a secret settlement with two women who had accused Lopez of harassment, using $103,000 in public funds. After details of the deal were revealed, Silver issued an apology, and Lopez resigned just before the assembly was set to consider his removal.
The secret agreement may have “encouraged” Lopez to continue his inappropriate conduct, according to Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who was brought in as a special prosecutor to investigate the case. He concluded, however, that Lopez should not be criminally charged.
Lopez has denied sexually harassing anyone. His lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Burhans and Rivera, both in their 20s, were hired in April 2012 as legislative aides, shortly after the secret deal was finalized.
The lawsuit claimed that Silver, one of Albany’s most powerful politicians, fostered a culture in which sexual harassment was seen as permissible through his refusal to conduct investigations into Lopez’s conduct.
Burhans claimed that Lopez asked her to spend the night with him, naked, in the governor’s mansion and suggested she sleep with a member of the governor’s staff to help Lopez get legislation passed, among other incidents.
In an email, a lawyer for the two women, Kevin Mintzer, said his clients were pleased by the decision and “look forward to the day when Mr. Silver and Mr. Lopez are formally held accountable for violating their rights.”
A lawsuit filed by Burhans and Rivera in state court against the assembly itself was dismissed in March.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Leslie Adler and Diane Craft)