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Niagara County to pay prosecutor $335,000 in sex harassment suit

LOCKPORT - An assistant district attorney who sued Niagara County over allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination has accepted a $335,000 settlement offer from the county.

In her lawsuit, prosecutor Elizabeth R. Donatello alleged former District Attorney Michael J. Violante sexually harassed her and other female prosecutors, making unwelcome comments about their "weight, hair style and breast size."

Donatello, 47,  resigned last week as a sex crimes prosecutor because of her serious health problems over the past three years.

"I had a number of strokes and developed a seizure disorder," Donatello said. "The seizures became more frequent, and I just couldn't do it anymore."

Her resignation took effect April 17, but her last day at work was March 2.

In her lawsuit, she also contended she was underpaid and given a less-flexible work schedule than a male sex crimes prosecutor, Robert A. Zucco.

Donatello’s suit, filed in U.S. District Court in January 2015, contended that Violante let Zucco arrive at work late and leave early because Zucco is a widowed father of three. The childless Donatello “had her husband to support her,” Violante said, according to Donatello.

Violante threatened to fire Donatello and ordered her to stop complaining about Zucco, who had 12 years more seniority and was paid $25,000 more per year than Donatello, according to court papers.

Violante reassigned Donatello in the fall of 2014 from sex crimes to welfare fraud prosecution.

Donatello did not favor that type of work, but with the assistance of Sheriff's Office investigators and fellow prosecutor Heather A. Sloma, she set records for the amount of fraudulent welfare payments recovered by the county in 2015 and 2016.

Violante resigned in March 2016. His one-sentence letter of resignation came as The News learned that as many as two other female employees in his office had filed sexual harassment complaints against him in the wake of the U.S. District Court lawsuit that Donatello filed against the county.

Caroline A. Wojtaszek, who was elected last November to succeed Violante as DA, returned Donatello to the sex crimes unit in January. But Donatello's health brought an end to her career as a prosecutor after 13 years with Niagara County.

"I was really, really grateful Caroline put me back into special victims, so I could retire from special victims. I'm sad that I can't work there anymore," Donatello said.

She wouldn't comment when asked if she thought the stress from her legal battle against the county had anything to do with triggering her strokes and seizures.

Violante declined comment on the lawsuit when it was filed. Since his resignation, he has sold his Niagara Falls home and reportedly has moved to Las Vegas. He could not be reached Monday.

"Elizabeth is pleased that this matter has come to a reasonable resolution," said her attorney, Andrew P. Fleming. "She looks forward to continuing her career at an appropriate time."

Donatello said once she recovers her health, she would like to work on something that would assist children and families.

County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said the settlement "includes specific provisions that I'm not allowed to talk about the lawsuit."

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