State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other top Albany officials are benefiting from salacious allegations about Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat, who is accused of sexually harassing subordinates. But the charges are a distraction from what should be the main event — that Mr. Silver, with the apparent involvement of the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, and the comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, authorized $103,000 in hush money for Mr. Lopez’s accusers — from an unregulated taxpayer-funded account — and another $35,000 from Mr. Lopez himself. Mr. Lopez is accused of inappropriate physical contact with two women who worked in his office, as well as off-color comments about their appearance and clothing. A Downstate district attorney has taken up the matter and opened a special-prosecutor’s investigation into whether Mr. Lopez broke any laws. Separately, the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics has begun an initial review. Mr. Lopez has said he did nothing wrong and has rejected calls for him to retire.
New York State government has been a model of corruption and dysfunction going back decades, despite repeated commissions and efforts to turn it around. If ever there were a scandal primed to take down the sad status quo, and offer a chance of meaningful correction, this was it — which is why Mr. Silver and many others with vested interests in keeping things the way they are would like to see attention focused on the line Mr. Lopez may have crossed. The distraction reaches even beyond Albany, with United States Senator Charles Schumer, like Mr. Silver a Democrat, having joined mounting calls for Mr. Lopez to resign. Not to make light of the allegations, which are troubling, but Mr. Schumer, Mr. Silver, and the others are obscuring something more important.
What is not in dispute is that Mr. Silver, with what seems to have been the collusion of other Albany leaders, was able to spend more than $100,000 in taxpayer money in an attempt to protect one of their own. It is little wonder that they would prefer to see the spotlight shined on Mr. Lopez.
If Albany is to retain any credibility, it must separate the charges against Mr. Lopez from the greater issue of a government culture in which cover-up payments can be made with the full knowledge of top officials. Mr. Lopez should be censured and even jailed if the allegations are true, reserving the right, if possible, to give voters the final call on his political future. It is Mr. Silver and those involved in the cover up who must go.