Al Dirschberger paid a bar bill of more than $200 the night he is accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate in an Albany hotel, according to two sources who have knowledge of the circumstances.
An indictment handed up last week accuses the former Erie County Social Services commissioner of raping one of his employees – a woman who was unable to give consent to sex, according to the grand jury – while the two attended a work-related conference in the state capital.
The 28-year-old woman who works in the Children's Services division of Social Services, has not returned to work since the conference on Dec. 5-6 and is currently on paid administrative leave. She was one of five Social Services employees attending a midweek conference in Albany focused on how to improve the lives of children in foster care.
The role alcohol played in the alleged incident is one of several unfolding details in the Dirschberger case.
The former commissioner was with the woman and others at the hotel bar the first night of the conference, said a source who was not present but said he has spoken with the victim. It is unclear how many people Dirschberger bought drinks for.
His defense team maintains that all contact between Dirschberger and the employee was consensual and limited to the conference.
"Dr. Dirschberger is innocent," said Buffalo attorney Nicholas A. Romano. "Unsupported, wild, and outrageous rumors do not change that fact. Scores of former students, athletes he has coached, friends, colleagues, and community members have rallied behind Dr. Dirschberger to fight these charges and testify to his over 30-year track record of being a ‘champion for women.’ ''
Dirschberger resigned Dec. 28 after county officials learned he was under investigation.
Poloncarz kept in dark
Albany police were notified of the alleged rape shortly after it occurred at the Renaissance Albany Hotel, according to Acting Police Chief Robert Sears.
Albany detectives interviewed potential witnesses in person and by phone but directed Social Services employees to remain silent for much of the investigation. This resulted in a tense two-week period leading up to Christmas when Dirschberger continued to come to work while police gathered evidence.
At one point, a detective called a Social Services administrator while she was sitting in the same room as the commissioner.
"The employee felt uncomfortable speaking until Dirschberger left," said Peter Anderson, spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
Poloncarz maintains he had no knowledge of the investigation until Dec. 23. Anderson said that's when First Deputy Commissioner Sharon Rochelle – one of the conference attendees – broke her silence.
"Sharon was instructed by the investigating detective to refrain from telling anyone, even the administration, about the investigation until she was cleared to do so by him," Anderson said. "Obviously, she was uncomfortable doing this ... Sharon complied with the investigator’s directive until he did indeed advise her that she could inform the administration of the investigation, which she then did, and the administration acted immediately."
Five days after an internal investigation was started, Poloncarz called together Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte, the county attorney and his chief of staff to question Dirschberger on an open speaker phone, Anderson said.
"The county executive explicitly and directly asked Dirschberger if he’d had sexual intercourse with a subordinate, which Dirschberger answered affirmatively," Anderson said. "After this confirmation, Poloncarz invoked the county's fraternization policy and asked for Dirschberger's immediate resignation."
The fraternization policy – Dirschberger said he was unaware it – requires appointees and officials in positions of influence to "disclose the existence of a romantic or sexual relationship" with a co-worker or subordinate to identify potential conflicts of interest.
Anderson said the county administration never interfered with the police investigation. Because the conference sponsor covered the registration, hotel and meal costs of those attending, the only county costs associated with the conference was $141 for car rental, gas and tolls.
Dirschberger covered the hefty hotel bar tab on his own.
Prosecuting the case
Police and lawyers involved in prosecuting the lowest-level felony rape charges, such as the one Dirschberger faces, say getting those charges to hold up in court presents challenges. Dirschberger also was charged with criminal sex act. It is not uncommon for the charges to be pleaded down to misdemeanors or result in no conviction, particularly if there are no witnesses or proof of violent assault.
Dirschberger's defense team has stated the former commissioner is innocent, and it is preparing a case arguing that nothing was done without the alleged victim's consent.
"I would expect a defense attorney to say that," responded Sears, the acting police chief. "I'm not going to get too much into the nuts and bolts, but we feel very confident of the case that we and the district attorney presented to the grand jury."
Since Dirschberger's indictment, his lawyers have produced a list of character witnesses, as well as a stack of letters vouching for his leadership and indicating support.
Meanwhile, the victim's family has told The Buffalo News that they have been instructed by the Albany County District Attorney's Office not to speak publicly about the case. The Buffalo News does not publish the name of rape victims without their consent. Social Services employees contacted by The News also have declined to comment.
Cecelia Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Albany County District Attorney's Office, said the DA's office will have no comment on the case.
"Our office will be pursuing litigation in the court of law," she said, "not the court of public opinion."
What supporters say
A longtime friend of the alleged victim and her family, who asked not to be identified for fear of hurting the case, said the young woman has been traumatized by what took place at the hotel and is currently in counseling. At Dirschberger's arraignment on Monday, the Albany County judge issued an order of protection for the woman.
Meanwhile, supporters of Dirschberger have been vocal in their regard for a man they consider a leader, mentor and friend. Several of those who spoke on his behalf received scholarships and jobs with his help.
Dirschberger was formerly a top administrator at Gateway Longview, an agency that serves at-risk youth, and a longtime women's softball coach at both Niagara University and Canisius College.
Jennifer Hare, who played on the Purple Eagles softball team at Niagara University from 2008 to 2012, said she and many other former players do not believe the allegations against him. Dirschberger was responsible for recruiting Hare on a full athletic scholarship and later helped her get a job at Gateway Longview, she said.
"Based on the Al I know, he would never do anything like this," said Hare, 28. "When I found out, I was completely shocked. I was at a loss for words. He would never do anything to jeopardize his family and career."
"He was probably the best coach I ever had," she added. "It was just the way he treated us. He was very respectful and he held us to very high standards. But at the same time, he was very approachable, very caring, kindhearted and he respected us as young women."
Melissa Markle, 31, who also played for the Purple Eagles softball team from 2004 to 2009, said that when she heard the news of the allegations against Dirschberger, she was driving and had to pull her vehicle to the side of the road.
"It took my breath away," she said of the shock.
Markle said she could not address the allegations against Dirschberger because she does not know what happened.
"But I can talk about the man that I know," she said. "He changed my life."
Like Hare, Markle said she received an NU scholarship and employment at Gateway Longview with Dirschberger's help.
"He encouraged me to coach after I graduated," she said. "You never forget the people who gave you the opportunities to get to where you are now."
She also pointed out that Dirschberger introduced her to a new approach for dealing with others suffering from trauma, a best practice that Dirschberger has since tried to instill in the Department of Social Services.
Resigned as coach
At Niagara University, Dirschberger served as head coach of the women's softball team from 1990 to 2012, then left to serve as an assistant coach at Canisius College. He returned to Niagara University in 2016 as an assistant softball coach.
He was placed on administrative leave by the university on Dec. 28, the same day Dirschberger abruptly resigned as Social Services commissioner. Because Dirschberger is a part-time Niagara University employee, his leave was unpaid, said Thomas Burns, NU's spokesman.
He added that there had never been any complaints against Dirschberger in his role as a coach, but that the university took the allegation seriously.
On Friday, Burns said Dirschberger has resigned his assistant coaching job.