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Report: Ex-Social Services chief asked deputy to lie to police in rape investigation

Al Dirschberger "appeared to be heavily intoxicated" at an awards dinner the night the then-Erie County social services commissioner allegedly raped a subordinate at an Albany conference.

A report released Tuesday also said Dirschberger later asked a deputy commissioner to lie to an Albany detective about the matter and to keep the detective's inquiries a secret from the County Executive's Office.

These are among the most damaging revelations laid out in the report by a New York City law firm hired by the County Legislature in May. The investigation by Lemire Law had a particular focus on whether any county administrators knew, or should have known, about any incidents of sexual harassment or abuse by Dirschberger and failed to take proper action prior to the alleged rape in December.

A January indictment accuses Dirschberger of raping the county employee at the conference. Jury selection is slated for Dec. 10.

Among the report's findings:

  • It is possible, but not certain, that the alleged rape victim "may have complained" informally about Dirschberger's conduct prior to the alleged rape Dec. 5. According to county administrators, the woman, listed as "Jane Doe" in the Lemire report, told a supervisor that Dirschberger regularly visited her office, even though she was a lower-level employee, and discussed matters that had nothing to do with her job.
  • Dirschberger engaged in "troubling" behavior with subordinates at off-site work events, including an account in which he invited female Social Services employees to share a bottle of vodka in his hotel room at a January 2017 conference. He also was described as "creepy," "shady" and "egotistical" among other unflattering descriptions by county employees after he resigned.
  • No one formally complained of unwelcome behavior by Dirschberger, and nothing suggests the county was negligent in hiring or supervising the former commissioner, according to the Lemire report. The firm found no evidence that the alleged victim or any of the other employees in Social Services filed complaints of sexual harassment or gender discrimination against Dirschberger prior to the alleged rape.
  • The firm found no evidence of reported sexual misconduct by Dirschberger at his previous jobs as a professor at SUNY Erie and as an executive at Gateway-Longview. The current president of Gateway Longview, Carolyne DeFranco, refused to answer any questions regarding his employment there.

In response to the findings, a lawyer for Dirschberger issued a statement saying the report confirms Dirschberger's contention that he is innocent.

"Dr. Dirschberger has maintained that he has never sexually harassed anyone and is 'not guilty' of all charges against him," said Nicholas A. Romano. "After a seven month investigation and interviewing several dozen witnesses, Lemire Law came to the same conclusion and exonerated Dr. Dirschberger and Erie County. Dr. Dirschberger extends his thanks to County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County Legislature, and Lemire Law for conducting a thorough, independent, and complete investigation. Now, Dr. Dirschberger turns his attention to Albany County Court to confront the charges against him, reveal the truth, and fully defend himself at trial."

The woman who accused Dirschberger of rape contends Erie County officials allowed previous harassment from him.

The Lemire Law report generally clears the county administration of ignoring harassment complaints against Dirschberger.

The report sheds light on Dirschberger's behavior the day of the alleged attack and highlights his efforts to cover up the incident after an Albany detective began looking into it.

The findings of the report were based on interviews with 36 people, mostly county employees, and well as numerous documents. Those names were removed from the public version of the report. In an agreement reached with the Albany County District Attorney's Office, Lemire investigators did not interview the alleged victim, another key witness who attended the conference and former First Deputy Commissioner Sharon Rochelle (who is not identified by name in the redacted report).

The investigators, however, reviewed Rochelle's recollections through a detailed memo she wrote and through conversations she had with other county staffers. According to those accounts, Dirschberger directly invited the alleged victim to the state-sponsored conference in Albany. Buffalo News payroll records list her as a lower-level employee in Social Services, unlike the four other higher-level administrators attending.

Prior to the conference, another Social Services administrator had witnessed Dirschberger occasionally sitting in the alleged victim's office with the door closed or almost closed and found it "strange." When he inquired with her about Dirschberger's visits, she told him that Dirschberger discussed personnel matters, including employees he was thinking of firing, which had nothing to do with her.

The first night of the conference, Rochelle said Dirschberger "appeared to be heavily intoxicated" after an awards dinner and said he wanted to do shots at the hotel bar with the alleged victim and another female Social Services employee. Conference attendees told Lemire investigators the alleged victim showed up for breakfast the next morning but left early and did not return. A "family emergency" was cited as the reason for her sudden departure.

Dirschberger then told Rochelle that he was not feeling well and wished to return to Buffalo, as well. He also wanted the alleged victim's phone number. The woman did not respond to follow-up calls or text messages from Rochelle and did not return to work.

Rochelle then received a call from an Albany detective Dec. 20 regarding the rape allegation. At that time, Dirschberger was present in the office and told Rochelle to lie to the detective by telling him that she had invited the young woman to the conference, not Dirschberger. Rochelle also recounted that Dirschberger asked her to keep quiet about the call and to keep the matter a secret from the County Executive's Office in particular.

At the detective's behest, Rochelle kept the police investigation to herself until she was told by the detective several days later that she was free to alert County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Poloncarz learned of the allegation Dec. 23, ordered an internal investigation and forced Dirschberger to resign Dec. 28.

Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said, "It's good to see that they didn't really find anything terribly wrong with Erie County's practices with these kinds of things. But I also think this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. They weren't able to speak with the three key witnesses in the matter, and these three individuals are the ones needed to verify information."

Poloncarz said Tuesday that the administration cooperated fully with the investigation, and the report clearly found no wrongdoing by members of his administration or any mishandling of the matter by county leaders.

"I had no question as to what this report was going to find," he said. "My administration acted appropriately. We acted concisely. We did not have any prior knowledge of this issue."

Legislature Chairman Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, responded to the report saying, "I thought it was a thorough and independent review. And I think it confirmed that the county executive and the administration acted appropriately in seeking and obtaining the resignation of Mr. Dirschberger."

Here's the report from the law firm on the Dirschberger matter:

Dirschberger Final Report (Text)

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