The Erie County Legislature has selected a woman-owned, New York City law firm to look into allegations that former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger may have sexually harassed employees in his department prior to the December incident in which he is accused of raping a subordinate.
Lemire LLC has been tapped to independently investigate whether there were any previous complaints, formal or informal, about Dirschberger's behavior, and how any such complaints were handled, prior to him being indicted on rape charges in January.
The firm estimates its investigation will cost from $115,000 to $140,000.
"Wherever the investigation leads them, it leads them," said Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, who was one of five legislators on a bipartisan subcommittee to consider proposals from firms interested in undertaking the work.
The bipartisan decision to seek an outside investigator came on the heels of a legal complaint filed against Erie County in March by the employee who accused Dirschberger of "repeated rape and physical assault" at an Albany conference in December. She accused the county of negligence, saying administrators were aware of prior incidents of sexual harassment by Dirschberger and did not take appropriate action against him.
Dixon and other members of the Legislature subcommittee praised the Lemire firm for being "unafraid" to pursue all leads and having experience handling similar matters. Committee members also considered it a plus that Lemire has no previous dealings with Erie County, assuring that the investigation will truly be independent.
In its proposal, the Lemire firm touted its experience conducting investigations and monitoring compliance for government agencies and nonprofit organizations, as well as Fortune 100 companies.
Past experience by the firm, as noted in its proposal, includes an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against a high-level officer with the New York City Carpenters Union and an internal investigation into allegations of workplace harassment at a New York City nonprofit organization.
Lemire said its initial work plan for Erie County includes interviewing about 35 potential witnesses, including current and former employees, and combing through other documentary evidence, ranging from county policies to emails and phone records. It will then produce a comprehensive report and/or oral presentation of its findings.
The Legislature received eight responses from firms to its request for proposals in March. Four firms were subsequently interviewed by a subcommittee that included Democrats Peter Savage, April Baskin and John Bruso, and Conservative Joseph Lorigo and Dixon of the Independence Party.
The firm's founder, Katherine A. Lemire, said she will oversee all aspects of the investigation and be the primary contact for the county. Her bio lists her as "a former state and federal prosecutor with extensive experience directing investigations into sexual misconduct and abuse, allegations of fraud, public corruption, and money-laundering." She also served as counsel to former New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.
Working with her will be lawyer Amy R. Foote, whose biography includes co-authorship of a chapter for a publication by the American Bar Association titled, "Conducting a Sexual Harassment Investigation – a Practical Guide."
The firm will also have an investigator and analyst contributing to their work.
Lemire listed an hourly rate of $475, while Foote listed an hourly rate of $450.
Committee members who selected Lemire said negotiations with the firm are ongoing and that Lemire will be expected to provide periodic updates and reports to the Legislature as its investigation moves forward.