IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Women employed by NY lawmaker describe sexually hostile office

The sexual harassment scandal that has been roiling New York’s political world began last Friday, when the Assembly’s ethics committee substantiated claims that Assemblyman Vito J.  Lopez harassed two women.
Stephanie M. Friot, a former employee of Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, said that Mr. Lopez never harassed her but that his office contained a "culture where behaviors like that were permissible."
Stephanie M. Friot, a former employee of Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, said that Mr. Lopez never harassed her but that his office contained a "culture where behaviors like that were permissible."ÁNgel Franco / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Five women who worked for Vito J. Lopez, the assemblyman at the center of a broadening sexual harassment scandal, described in interviews an atmosphere of sexual pressure and crude language in his office, with frequent unwanted advances by him and others, requests for provocative dress, personal questions about their boyfriends and fears of reprisals if they complained.

By their accounts, Mr. Lopez, 71, a Brooklyn Democrat, told some women not to wear bras to work. He requested they wear short skirts and high heels. He gave them cash to buy jewelry and complimented them on their figures, giving special attention to those he called “well endowed.”

He asked about their personal lives, urging them to break up with boyfriends, and berated those women — all of whom were new to politics — who did not compliment him effusively enough, according to several of the women interviewed.

One of the women, Stephanie M. Friot, spoke on the record, while the other four spoke on the condition their names not be used. Ms. Friot, 28, said that Mr. Lopez never directly harassed her but that “there was a certain culture where behaviors like that were permissible.”

Another woman described “an atmosphere of intimidation,” an environment where she and other former staff members said Mr. Lopez veered between crude jokes and fierce tirades.

“He would comment on a shirt I was wearing and say ‘I’d like it better if you didn’t have a bra on,’ ” said one of the former staff members. “That was something he brought up quite a bit.”

The sexual harassment scandal that has been roiling New York’s political world began last Friday, when the Assembly’s ethics committee substantiated claims that Mr. Lopez harassed two women. The Assembly released a letter censuring Mr. Lopez, one of the city’s last powerful political bosses, taking away his committee chairmanship and barred him from employing interns or anyone under the age of 21. The letter described “pervasive unwelcome verbal conduct” and found that Mr. Lopez verbally harassed, groped and kissed two of his staff members without their consent.

Over the next few days, The New York Times reported that Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker and one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, authorized a secret payment of $103,080 in June to settle prior allegations against Mr. Lopez from two other women — allegations that were never referred to the ethics committee. The settlement has sparked numerous calls for investigation into the Assembly’s handling of the matter. Mr. Silver has conceded he made a mistake.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other elected officials have called on Mr. Lopez to resign, but he has resisted. Mr. Lopez did say on Tuesday, however, that he would not seek another term as Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman next month, a decision that will greatly diminish his power.

The five women’s accounts suggest that the harassment accusations substantiated last week by the ethics committee were part of a longstanding pattern.

Mr. Lopez and his aides did not respond Wednesday to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment about the women’s accounts, but Mr. Lopez has vigorously denied the previous allegations, saying: “The charges made against me are unfair and untrue. Never did I intentionally touch or attempt to kiss either of the complainants. I have never forced myself on anyone, nor would I.”

Mr. Lopez’s lawyer, Gerald B. Lefcourt, declined to comment.

Mr. Lopez is a holdover from an era when party leaders could lavishly reward friends and exile enemies to the wilderness. He has served in the Assembly since being elected in 1984 and has headed the Brooklyn Democratic Party since 2005, a post that came with tremendous influence and gave him unrivaled power in selecting the borough’s judges, and filling vacant political seats.

He was also the founder of the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, one of Brooklyn’s largest nonprofit organizations and a reliable well of votes, support and government contracts.

Mr. Lopez’s district office on South Fifth Street, which usually hums with constituents requesting assistance and political aides trading gossip, was staffed largely with attractive young women, according to those who worked there. “Vito doesn’t hire ugly girls,” Ms. Friot said.

The five women were all contacted by The Times, mostly after their names were found in records listing his employees. Some did not know one another. None of the women still work there. They were generally in their 20s when they did, were not fired and all feared the repercussions of quitting or complaining. Most of them stayed for a period of months, not years.

Their accounts of working for Mr. Lopez all echoed one another. One said Mr. Lopez invited her to accompany him on overnight trips; two said he asked them not to wear bras; three said he asked them to wear short skirts; all said they feared his temper. And all of them said they had resisted his advances.

“Nobody knew how to react, and when he was gone, everyone would talk about it and say, ‘This is outrageous,’ ” one of the women said. “People would try to ignore it and try to go along a little with it because he was so threatening.”

In addition to the five women, The Times interviewed some former staff members who said they had heard of inappropriate behavior but had not witnessed or experienced it, and a few who were surprised by the allegations.

“I never saw anything of that sort,” said Laiza Garcia, 29, who said she enjoyed her time working for Mr. Lopez in 2010. “To see and to experience the power and respect he has in Brooklyn, in retrospect, it was an amazing experience.”

Several other employees who were contacted refused to speak to reporters.

Like many elected officials, Mr. Lopez required his staff to work long hours and to attend community events at night after full days in the office. One woman who spoke to The Times said she was expected to be “smiley and flirtatious,” and all of the women said they were expected to be available seven days a week — one said she was berated for taking a short vacation.

“People are afraid to leave because his network of allies is so huge,” one of the women said. “If you leave on bad terms, no one will hire you because they are afraid of what Vito will do to them.”

Several of the women interviewed said they felt intimidated by Mr. Lopez, and as a result endured persistent inappropriate remarks, personal questions, and suggestions on how to button their blouses.

“He commented that I was well endowed and that another girl in the office was well endowed,” one of the women said. “But I didn’t play it up like she did, and I should wear button-down shirts so he could look down them.”

For Ms. Friot, the last straw came in May 2010, she said, when an aide to one of Mr. Lopez’s political allies aggressively propositioned her during a weekend political retreat to a resort in the Catskills.

She said she brushed off the proposition, but later in the night, two other political aides cornered her and asked her to come back to their hotel room.

“I was scared because I felt like no one had my back,” she said.

She spoke to Mr. Lopez about the incident, but she said he shrugged it off and warned Ms. Friot to stay quiet. “He was like, ‘Shut your mouth, I’ll take care of it. You need to keep quiet about this.’ ”

Ms. Friot said she felt Mr. Lopez was more concerned with maintaining his political connections than with her well-being.

“I was so disgusted,” she said. She quit soon afterward, and now works as a social worker in Brooklyn. For Ms. Friot, the recent allegations felt like vindication. “When I read the charges, it was kind of a relief,” she said. “I was like, ‘How long is this going to happen before it was made public?’ ”

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.

This story, "Women Employed by Lawmaker Describe Sexually Hostile Office," first appeared in The New York Times.