Five women who worked for the powerful Assemblyman Vito Lopez have spoken to the NY Times about sexual harassment they allegedly endured while working for the Brooklyn power broker. Describing an "atmosphere of intimidation" where Lopez and staffers would berate female employees with offensive sexual innuendo, one former staffer told the Times Lopez "would comment on a shirt I was wearing and say ‘I’d like it better if you didn’t have a bra on.' That was something he brought up quite a bit."

The Times also obtained a redacted copy of a settlement showing that two women who brought sexual harassment claims against Lopez this year received $32,000 from him, in addition to $103,080 in state money tacitly approved by Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver. The agreement settled what it called “unproven allegations” of sexual harassment against Lopez, with five former employees dividing the money with their law firms.

The settlement also had a confidentiality clause, which Silver has claimed prohibited the Assembly's ethics committee from investigating the allegations. But confidentiality clauses are usually rendered null by a subpoena, and the ethics committee has subpoena power. Gloria Allred, a lawyer for two of the women, issued a statement yesterday saying, "We disagree with Speaker Silver’s statement that the Legislature is ‘precluded’ from referring complaints to the Assembly’s ethics committee whenever an employee also seeks some form of a private resolution of claims against an alleged harasser."

Most of the five women who spoke to the Times were contacted after the paper cold-called former employees. None of the women were fired, and most said they feared they wouldn't be able to find work elsewhere, because Lopez, who has served as the Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman since 2005, is so powerful and politically-connected. "If you leave on bad terms," one of the women said, "No one will hire you because they are afraid of what Vito will do to them."

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.”

Lopez is also accused of groping and kissing two of his staff members without their consent. Silver, meanwhile, is reportedly "panicking" because he's now going to be investigated by Cuomo's Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). “They can get hit in a lot of ways on this,” a source tells the Post, noting that Silver "is also concerned about attacks from women’s groups angry about the settlement."

But female lawmakers have been reluctant to publicly condemn Silver, because his support is seen as crucial to win elections. The Daily News surveyed nearly two dozen female office holders, but most, including Speaker Quinn, either did not return calls or "offered tepid excuses about needing more information." Allred, an attorney for Lopez's accusers, tells the Times, "Mr. Silver has to shift his priorities. The legislators are elected officials. Their job is not to sexually harass women. If they do, there should be no corner in which they can hide."