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Niagara County DA resigns in wake of sex harassment complaints

LOCKPORT – Michael J. Violante, who has been Niagara County district attorney since 2008, resigned Monday, apparently under pressure from new sexual harassment allegations.

“The document will be filed today,” County Attorney Claude A. Joerg told The Buffalo News shortly after noon.

County Clerk Joseph A. Jastrzemski said a one-sentence letter of resignation was hand-delivered to the County Legislature clerk’s office and then brought to him for filing. Legislature Clerk Mary Jo Tamburlin confirmed that the delivery was made about 12:45 p.m. by a member of Violante’s staff.

Violante, 70, a Niagara Falls Republican, had stayed away from his Lockport office last week. The News learned that as many as two other female employees in his office had filed sexual harassment complaints against him recently, in the wake of a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed against the county last year by Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth R. Donatello.

She accused Violante of making unwelcome comments about her figure and clothing choices, and of making similar comments about some of her colleagues. Donatello also charged that Violante had favored a male prosecutor over her in scheduling and salary in the sex crime unit.

After her allegations became known, according to court papers, Violante threatened to fire her. She was transferred to Niagara Falls to work on welfare fraud cases, isolating her from the other prosecutors in Lockport.

A State Supreme Court judge last year gave Donatello permission to sue the county again over the alleged retaliation.

Donatello said, “Never in a million years would I have expected this. I’m in shock.”

Her federal complaint said, “Violante relentlessly demonstrated an inappropriate attitude towards his female subordinates, including plaintiff. Violante made plaintiff’s work environment unbearable, repeatedly making off-color comments to or about almost all of the women in the office, including plaintiff.”

Donatello’s attorney, Andrew P. Fleming of Hamburg, said, “We have heard that there have been a number of recent complaints that are similar to the complaints Elizabeth has been making for the last three years, including complaints of retaliation, and we are looking forward to our day in court, when we can show a jury the totally inappropriate conduct of this public official.”

Joerg wouldn’t say why Violante is resigning. Violante was not in the office Monday, a secretary said.

Joerg said Violante, who has about 12 years of county service, including a four-year stint as public defender before he was first elected DA, will retire with the county paying 50 percent of his health insurance costs for life. He also will receive a partial state pension. He was to have been paid $152,500 this year. That salary is set indirectly by the state under a law that requires district attorneys to have the same pay as county judges, who are state employees and whose pay is determined by the State Legislature.

Deputy District Attorney Theodore A. Brenner is listed first among three deputies on Violante’s oath of office from 2008, making him first in line to become acting DA. The other deputies are Holly E. Sloma and Doreen M. Hoffmann.

An election will be held in November to fill the seat, although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has the authority to appoint an interim DA.

According to county election records, Brenner and Hoffmann are not registered members of any political party and Sloma is registered with the Independence Party.

County Democratic Chairman Nicholas J. Forster said, “We do not have anybody lined up as we speak. However, the county committee will convene Thursday and that will be part of our discussion.”

Forster added, “I expect we will have a name within a few days to send to the governor’s office.”

County GOP Chairman Scott P. Kiedrowski could not be reached for comment.

None of the attorneys on the staff has any job protection; they serve at the DA’s pleasure. Brenner, Sloma and Hoffmann had been hired by Violante’s Democratic predecessor, Matthew J. Murphy III, who is now a County Court judge.