NIAGARA FALLS – Michael J. Violante was supposed to return to work Monday as Niagara County District Attorney after a weeklong vacation.
He wasn’t at his Lockport office on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, either.
A Buffalo News reporter found him late Friday morning at his home in Niagara Falls. The 70-year-old Violante appeared to be in good health, dressed in casual pants and a flannel shirt.
But he refused to answer questions about talk that he may resign.
“I’m not going to comment on what my plans are,” Violante said.
Might that stance change soon?
“I’m not going to comment on anything,” Violante said.
Will he return to work on Monday?
Violante again refused to answer.
“You have a right to ask questions,” he added, “and I have a right not to answer them.”
Violante’s absence from work comes as the county is defending a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by a member of Violante’s staff, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth R. Donatello. She claimed she was the victim of gender discrimination in pay and scheduling.
Donatello also asserted that Violante had made several offensive comments about the figures and clothing of some of the women prosecutors on his staff.
There may have been as many as two other complaints from female employees about similar comments made to them by Violante, according to two sources with knowledge of the investigation who spoke to The News on condition of anonymity.
County Human Resources Director Peter P. Lopes declined to comment on whether his office received such complaints.
“We have litigation in that office,” he explained.
Donatello was given permission by a State Supreme Court judge last year to file a second lawsuit against the county, alleging that Violante had retaliated against her for her complaints by reassigning her from prosecuting sex crimes in County Court to handling welfare fraud cases and working in Niagara Falls City Court.
The move gave Donatello an office in the Falls, away from the other prosecutors in Lockport.
Violante, a Republican, has been elected district attorney three times, most recently last November, always without opposition. In 2015, the Democratic Party cross-endorsed him for the first time.
If Violante were to resign, according to an oath of office filed during his first week on the job in 2008, Deputy District Attorney Theodore A. Brenner apparently would be first in line to become acting district attorney.
The document lists three deputy district attorneys and the order in which they are to act in Violante’s absence. Brenner, a Harvard Law School graduate and the staff’s specialist in drunken driving cases, is listed first.
He’s followed by Holly E. Sloma, the head of the sex crime unit, and Doreen M. Hoffmann, who prosecutes most of the homicides in the county.
All three of those attorneys were hired originally by Violante’s predecessor, Matthew J. Murphy III, who is now a County Court judge.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has the authority to appoint a district attorney to serve until the end of the year.
An election will be held in November to fill the Erie County district attorney post, and one would be held in Niagara County if Violante resigns, according to Jennifer A. Fronczak, Republican election commissioner.