Friday, March 27, 2009

New York Senate Leader Defends Action on Senator in Assault Case by Jeremy W. Peters -

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Facing mounting criticism, Malcolm A. Smith, the State Senate majority leader, on Tuesday defended his handling of Hiram Monserrate, the Queens senator charged with assaulting his companion, saying that everyone deserves the presumption of innocence.

“We will let the court system process take its due course,” Mr. Smith said. “And when that action finalizes then we will take more action if we have to.”

Mr. Smith said that Mr. Monserrate’s decision to step down temporarily as chairman of the Senate Consumer Protection Committee, and give up the post’s $12,500 annual stipend, was the proper action to take while he awaits trial.

Mr. Smith walked away when asked by a reporter at the Capitol whether his holding a fund-raiser for Mr. Monserrate last week was appropriate. Mr. Smith held a cocktail reception for Mr. Monserrate at an Albany hotel; contributors paid up to $1,500 for a ticket.

Republicans and some women’s groups have criticized the lack of more serious censure of Mr. Monserrate, who is accused of slashing his companion in the face with a drinking glass.

His continued presence in the Legislature “is an affront to all the women who work there,” said Marcia Pappas, president of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter.

Mr. Monserrate was indicted on Monday on three felony assault counts in a six-count indictment handed up by a Queens grand jury. If he is convicted of a felony, he would be expelled from the Senate.

The question of how to deal with Mr. Monserrate is a touchy one for Democratic leaders, who control the chamber, 32 to 30. Because 32 votes are required to pass legislation in the Senate or elect a majority leader, the departure of just one senator would leave Democrats without a functioning majority.

The party’s response to Mr. Monserrate has been generally supportive since he was arrested in December, and so far no Democrats have called for him to step down, temporarily or permanently.

Senate Democrats met behind closed doors on Monday and agreed privately that they would not discuss Mr. Monserrate’s case publicly.

The chairwoman of a Senate task force on domestic violence, Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, would not comment on Mr. Monserrate’s treatment. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

Told of the backlash from some women’s rights groups, Ms. Hassell-Thompson said, “ I’m sorry that’s their opinion, but they haven’t expressed that to me.”

Other Democrats said they stood behind Mr. Monserrate, who has said the incident with his companion was an accident.

“We’re supportive of our colleague, who has maintained his innocence,” said Senator Kevin S. Parker of Brooklyn. “It’s an ongoing legal matter, and the courts will resolve it, and we’ll move on from there.”

Davidson Goldin, a public relations consultant Mr. Monserrate has retained, issued a statement saying that the Mr. Monserrate’s colleagues’ support was not surprising. “Senator Monserrate and his girlfriend have both said all along that the incident was an accident. So it’s no surprise that his colleagues believe the two people who were there when the accident occurred.”

The case has emboldened Republicans, who have stepped up their criticism that Mr. Smith is a weak and ineffective leader.

“When you let people like Senator Monserrate stay in office,” said Senator Martin Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn, “and you do fund-raisers for them, and you pat them on the back and you say, ‘Go for it!’ you know, there’s a disgrace, a disgust, in people across this state.”