TOWN OF NIAGARA – Details of a sexual harassment case in the parks department that has caught the attention of the FBI and raised questions about payment of legal bills connected to the matter were discussed Tuesday at the Town Board meeting.
The complaint involved a female parks employee who charged that she was sexually harassed by a male supervisor and as a result, had not been reappointed to her position, according to Town Attorney Michael Risman. He said following the investigation, the woman was rehired and the supervisor was not.
Councilman Robert Clark said he wanted to know why Risman’s firm, Hodgson Russ, charged the town for a recent contact with the private attorney of Town Supervisor Steven Richards that lasted more than an hour. The bill was one of several Clark asked Risman about.
Risman said the contact was made by another attorney of the firm, Elizabeth Carlson, an expert in sexual harassment matters who was put in charge of the town’s investigation.
Risman also said the 21-year-old victim told Carlson she was contacted by FBI agents at her home. The agents wanted to know if there were any violations of federal law, Risman said.
Although he stressed he did not wish to impugn the FBI’s methods, he said it was “quite unusual” that law enforcement officials would “jump into our investigation” and run the risk of interfering with the investigation and intimidating the victim.
Last year, Richards and other town officials were questioned by the FBI and representatives from the State Comptrollers Office. The investigation, which apparently is still ongoing, reportedly involves the use of town equipment and materials on private property.
Richards has blamed Clark for calling the FBI on him as a political maneuver, a charge Clark has denied. However, Clark has been adamant that Richards, not the town, should have to pay his legal bills in the matter. Richards said he’s had to pay about $44,000 in attorney fees so far of his own money.
Clearly agitated by the discussion, Richards, who said he has been falsely accused, claimed “some scumbag on this workforce called the FBI to say I put her (the harassment victim) up to it.”
Risman, who said he did not have specific recollection of the contact, said he never been involved in an investigation where the FBI unexpectedly stepped in. He and Carlson did have to analyze how to handle the issue when it was reported.
Although Risman acknowledged Clark’s right to question any bills, he said he was offended at the accusation that the billing was not proper.
Risman said he has documented all his services on behalf of the town and has always submitted very detailed bills. He noted that the matter was “very serious” and any financial penalties would not be covered by insurance. The outcome has “eliminated all financial liability of the town.”
“You have every right to question the bills, but I do take umbrage in how we handled the matter,” Risman told Clark.
Councilman Charles Teixeira said he thought Richards should have contacted his attorney instead of Risman. Councilman Marc Carpenter said he wanted to discuss the matter in executive session and not in public.
Clark said if he saw any more bills submitted related to the FBI investigation, he would personally file ethics charges.
Risman said the only reason the FBI was mentioned in the bills was because of the “successful completion of the investigation.”
“The bills are honest and straight-forward,” he told the board.