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N.Y. lawmaker won't face charge over sex harassment claim

By Jessica Dye

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Democratic power broker in Brooklyn, will not face criminal charges over allegations he sexually harassed female staffers, a special prosecutor investigating the case said Wednesday.

The scandal rocked Albany, and Lopez was removed from his post as chair of the Committee on Housing, stripped of his seniority and forbidden from having any interns or employees under the age of 21. He resigned as chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party but resisted calls to resign his Assembly seat.

"Certainly, what we found is alarming," Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who oversaw the investigation, said in a seven-page statement. "However, based on our investigation, there is no basis upon which to conclude that a chargeable crime was committed within the confines of Kings County (Brooklyn)."

Donovan said Lopez had apparently been emboldened by the New York Assembly, which signed off on a confidential settlement between Lopez and female accusers in a separate incident.

The "secretive manner" in which legislators handled the settlement "apparently encouraged (Lopez) to continue the inappropriate conduct," Donovan said.

The Assembly publicly censured Lopez in August after the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance found he had inflicted "multiple incidents of unwelcome physical conduct" on two female staffers in June and July of 2012.

After the censure, it was revealed that Lopez had entered into a previously undisclosed settlement regarding complaints from other female employees, paid in part by both Lopez and the Assembly, Donovan found.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has acknowledged the confidentiality clause was a mistake, Donovan said.

Donovan also faulted the New York attorney general's office and state Office of the Comptroller for not objecting to the inclusion of the confidentiality clause.

The settlement "fell short of what the public has a right to expect," said Donovan, who was appointed to lead the probe after Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes recused himself.

Lopez's attorney Gerald Lefcourt said in a statement Wednesday that the "decision not to seek criminal charges against Assemblyman Vito Lopez is a just and welcome end to this sad saga."

A representative for the state Assembly did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

A report released separately on Wednesday by the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics said that since at least 2010, Lopez engaged in an "escalating course of conduct with respect to multiple female staff members," making demeaning comments, demanding companionship and trying to force intimate contact.

Those who acquiesced or tolerated the behavior were rewarded with gifts, raises and plum assignments, according to the report, which has been referred to the Assembly Ethics Committee for further action.

(Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Chris Reese and Bob Burgdorfer)

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