Debbie Allen, of Buffalo, says that aside from having to carry out blatantly political chores during her workday, she was forced to pick up her boss' granddaughter from school and to scout out foreclosed properties the boss might want to buy as she dabbled in real estate.
Allen's boss until last December was Barbara Miller-Williams, the Erie County Legislature chairwoman. Allen was a $35,000-a-year district office aide expected to serve the chairwoman's various needs -- under treatment so unbearable it made her sick, Allen said.
In a sworn complaint to the state Division of Human Rights, Allen says that Miller-Williams, an African-American, treated her and other African-American aides unfairly when compared with other Legislature employees.
Allen said her age was an issue, as well. At 48 last year, she was older than many legislative staffers, though she was hardly the oldest among those hired by the chairwoman.
"Ms. Williams constantly made comments about my color and age," Allen said in her complaint, which Miller-Williams dismisses as election-season politics.
"For example," Allen continued, "she stated she 'needed young, sexy women to work for her to pull in the men for her fundraisers.'
"Ms. Williams also referred to the color of my skin when she explained how I would have been in the 'fields working' if we lived during the days of slavery."
Miller-Williams denied the substance of Allen's allegations and questioned the timing of the complaint -- late in a campaign season when she's locked in a three-way race for re-election. Allen was let go late in 2010, but she did not sign the formal statement until this month.
"You have a disgruntled employee who I had to let go a year ago," Miller-Williams said. "Isn't it interesting, a year later, right before the election, this former employee has all these allegations?"
"The timing is very interesting," she repeated, asserting that Allen is close to the campaign of one of her opponents.
But did Miller-Williams expect her aide to perform personal or political chores?
"If she did, it was on her lunch break. We wouldn't do those things on county time," Miller-Williams said of the favors the staff apparently does for her, or for each other. "I clearly tell every staff member, do not do it on county time. You must do it on your personal time. If she didn't want to do it, she could have said no. I don't treat employees like that."
"I never asked her to look at any properties," she added. "I have never asked any staff member to do anything personal for me on county time. I never have, and I never will."
Why did Allen not file her complaint months ago?
"It clearly could have been" filed earlier, said Allen's lawyer, Harvey P. Sanders, but he added that "sometimes there are steps that one takes to resolve a case informally in order to avoid filing a formal legal claim."
"There is no political vendetta against Ms. Miller-Williams here," he said.
Allen's complaint indicates Miller-Williams might have blurred the line between government business and personal affairs. Allen writes that she was forced to complete Miller-Williams campaign finance reports on government time, though many political incumbents expect aides and campaign treasurers to perform such duties off the clock.
"I was told to pick up her granddaughter from school on county time," Allen wrote in the complaint. "I was also told to go to the houses listed on city auctions and phone her to tell her the conditions of the houses before she made her bids."
Williams occasionally invests in real estate and in recent years spent $6,000 on a home at 295 Walnut St. and $23,000 for a property at 33 Academy Road, according to county property records.
Allen wrote that while working for Miller-Williams she developed high blood pressure and severe chest pains, which led her to be hospitalized in August 2010. When her health issues persisted through November 2010, and it looked as if Allen would need a medical leave, Miller-Williams let her go, Allen said in her complaint.
The chairwoman had talked to Allen's doctor Dec. 1, 2010, but dated the termination letter as of Nov. 26 of that year.
Miller-Williams "wanted it to look like I was fired before I saw my doctor," Allen states in the complaint.
Miller-Williams, a Buffalo Democrat, became Legislature chairwoman at the start of 2010. The post gives her considerable sway over county business and a seat on the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
Six Republican-bloc lawmakers loyal to County Executive Chris Collins teamed with three Democrats, including Miller-Williams, to name her chairwoman, elevating her to the pinnacle of her political career.
In return, Miller-Williams protected most of the business the county executive sent the Legislature and agreed not to block certain initiatives dear to the Republicans. She even sponsored the redistricting plan that the Republicans favored and fought for.
Under county custom, a Collins-appointed county attorney will represent her in any proceeding before the Division of Human Rights or any negotiation to settle "Debbie Allen v. Erie County Legislature."
Miller-Williams faces an uphill fight if she wants to serve another two year-term in the Legislature, which provides her a $42,588 base salary and a $10,000 stipend if she ascends to chairwoman again. The Democratic Party endorsement is crucial in her urban Buffalo district, and this year the endorsement went to Timothy Hogues.
Miller-Williams is running on minor party lines in the three-way race. Joseph Mascia, also a Democrat, is running on the Conservative Party line in District 1.
Democratic Party employees in the Legislature's downtown office tread cautiously with the chairwoman. She can hire and fire them, and when named chairwoman, she promptly fired eight employees hired under previous leadership.
Aside from the central-office staffs maintained by each party, each lawmaker is allowed the equivalent of one full-time employee. Miller-Williams, like other lawmakers, would sometimes go with two part-time aides, but in recent years she employed just one full-time district aide and often an unpaid intern.
County records show that at least seven employees have left Miller-Williams' district office since she became a county lawmaker in 2007, an unusually high rate of turnover.
"She has been a police officer. She has a military background. So that gives you an inkling that she is a strong authoritative figure -- and she is a strong authoritative figure," said Legislator Thomas Mazur, a Cheektowaga Democrat who gets along with Miller-Williams but donated to the Hogues campaign.
"You also see aspects of her being a motherly type of person. I haven't seen the type of behavior that is implied in that complaint," Mazur said. "But we all have different personalities and different ways of doing things at different times. We all wear different hats."