I-TEAM - Sexual Harassment: Women say it's happening in Erie County government

Posted: 10:47 PM, Feb 01, 2018
Updated: 2018-12-12 13:09:55-05

"[He asked me] to come over for sex..."

"It was an old boys club..."

"I began experiencing...anxiety and panic attacks."

"She...pulled her pants down in front of me..."

"There's a major issue going on with the county. They sweep it under the rug."

Those words don't come from Hollywood or Congress. They come from the mouths of public servants right here in Erie County.

They're government workers and taxpayers who say they were sexually harassed by people who are trusted to carry out the people's business.

The accused are Democrats and Republicans, women and men -- and their actions are costing you, the taxpayer.

The accusers’ stories -- their allegations -- have stayed mostly hidden within Erie County’s halls of power. Until now.



“You'd have him touching you...even on the shoulders, it's like, stop touching me,” said Rita Escalante.

Escalante works at the Erie County Auto Bureau.

She said she's witnessed a culture of harassment -- starting with her old boss, who she says regularly harassed female co-workers. 

Rita Escalante

“She was right next to me and he lifted up the side of her skirt and I was like, 'Oh my God, what are you doing?'” Escalante said. “She got mad.”

Escalante said some of the harassment came from other employees.

“They just thought it was funny,” she said. “[Like] it's OK to say things like that because it's acceptable, and it's not acceptable.”

Escalante said she complained to the acting county clerk -- but says nothing besides re-assigning her was ever done -- so she filed a complaint with the State Division of Human Rights.

“Because taking it to the county, they're not doing anything,”

“Because taking it to the county, they're not doing anything,” Escalante said. “Nobody's held responsible. The supervisor I originally complained about was never...held accountable.”

With the nationwide #MeToo movement -- as well as the alleged sexual misdeeds of former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and former Erie County Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger -- the sexual behavior of public officials has come into focus.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, a Democrat, said his administration does not tolerate sexual harassment.

“When it comes to sexual harassment, we do not tolerate that in Erie County,” Poloncarz said. “If there is a sexual harassment issue, we deal with it internally, and if someone has to be fired, they're fired.”

Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz

County Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, and Republicans in the county legislature have  proposed legislation to deal with harassment claims against county workers.

“We can't allow it to happen in the county,” Dixon said of sexual harassment.

“I'm troubled, quite honestly, by the amount of discrimination claims, and how they're handled,” Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said during a recent legislative session. 

To get at the truth, the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team dug through six years of legal claims filed against Erie County.

We tracked down victims in many of the cases.

For some, it's a time in their life they try to forget.

Others were looking not for attention or money, but for the men they say harassed them to be held accountable.

For most, it's justice they never received.

Harassment claims through the years

May 2008:

Joe Murphy was a top aide in the personnel department under then-County Executive Chris Collins when he was accused of sexually harassing a female employee.

Joe Murphy

County taxpayers paid a $155,000 settlement to the woman who filed the claim. 

She told 7 Eyewitness News she was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement and told she could never work in county government again.

The settlement was put through as a workers' comp. claim and only became public when it came before Erie County's control board.

Murphy was suspended for five days. 

He remains in the same job -- making $89,000 per year -- to this day.

January 2015:

A Tonawanda woman under investigation by Child Protective Services meets the county investigator for an interview.

Court papers say he "began to make a series of sexual advances"..."inappropriately touched [her]...on her legs"..."made phone calls and texts...to come over for sex."

She alleged the worker "told her sternly that if she wanted her case to be "closed out"...not to tell anyone about their interactions."

The woman said in court papers she was left "disturbed and shaken" by the experience.

She said the CPS worker bragged that he had been suspended four years earlier for inappropriate relations in a different case.

The workers no longer remains on the county payroll but county officials would not say whether he was fired.

April 2016:

Female sheriff's deputy says she is harassed because of her pregnancy.

She says she is refused "light duty" before the pregnancy and says her bosses won't give her a private place to pump breast milk.

In court papers, she says two deputies make crude jokes, asking her, "Can I have some creamer for my coffee?"

Sheriff Timothy Howard is accused of suggesting she "get a portable toilet for my work station."

She is "shocked and humiliated" and suffers panic attacks, court papers show.

The Sheriff's Office says the case is not technically sexual harassment.

“It's very stressful, seeing and hearing the things that go on, and not being able to do anything.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Former County Executive Chris Collins, Sheriff Timothy Howard and officials at the Erie County Clerk’s Office all refused interview requests to answer our questions about the specific cases in this report.

Eor Escalante, who claims a culture of harassment at the auto bureau, speaking out has taken a very personal toll.

“It's very stressful, seeing and hearing the things that go on, and not being able to do anything. 

I've had people come to me when I was downtown with their complaints and you'd have people crying to me, and it's like, what can I do?” she said. 

Holding back tears, she added, “For me, I've done the best I could, but it's just very, very stressful. It's just hard. It makes life harder.”

Charlie Specht

Charlie Specht is the lead Investigative Reporter for the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team. Photojournalist Jeff Wick assisted with the editing of this story. Reporters Josh Bazan and Jeff Slawson assited with shooting video. Digital Director Catlin Bogard assisted with this online story.

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