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Niagara chairwoman, target of attacks: 'I was molested as a child'

After Glenn S. Aronow was hired for a Niagara County government job last week, robocalls to Rebecca J. Wydysh's constituents over the weekend accused her and other Republican lawmakers of protecting sexual harassers.

Aronow, a longtime player in Niagara County Republican politics, had previously been accused of sexual harassment.

Wydysh, the chairwoman of the Niagara County Legislature, responded Tuesday to the anonymous political attack by revealing that she is a survivor of both sexual assault and sexual harassment.

"I've been called a shameful disgrace as a woman because I would allow my county employees to be in a harmful situation due to certain hirings," Wydysh told The Buffalo News. "What people need to understand is, that could not be further from the truth."

The robocalls followed last week's disclosure that Aronow, a former GOP legislator and onetime staffer for former State Sen. George D. Maziarz, had been hired for a $53,000-a-year job in the county Employment and Training Department.

Aronow resigned from his State Senate job in 2011 after informing Maziarz that settlement talks were underway with a Lancaster woman who accused Aronow of making unwelcome and crude comments when Aronow and the woman worked in the State Senate Majority Office. The state in 2012 paid $90,000 to settle the case, with neither the state nor Aronow admitting wrongdoing.

For his new job, Aronow received a probationary appointment to a post covered by civil service regulations. The hiring did not require a vote in the Legislature.

Upset by the robocalls, Wydysh revealed her own experiences with sexual harassment and assault.

"I want the piece that people take away from this to be that you always need to be mindful of what might have gone on in someone else's life, and you don't know their story," Wydysh said.

Wydysh choked up at times and twisted a tissue in her hands as she told her story to The News in her office.

"I was molested as a child," she said. "I was physically abused by a classmate on a school bus while my school bus driver watched and laughed because she didn't like me."

"I have been in situations with male co-workers who have harassed me in the past," she added. "I have had a harassment complaint filed on my behalf because of a situation that happened with another woman at work, so these are not just male-female situations.

"I'm not going to talk about details of any of these things," she said. "These are things that my closest family and friends know, and some of them will read about in the newspaper."

"At 44 years old, I'm finally comfortable with speaking about that. I think the reason I am speaking with you is because in 2020, not only is it OK and right for a woman to be the chairman of this Legislature, but it's OK and right that I help other people know it's OK to talk about these things."

Wydysh said no criminal charges were filed in any of the four incidents.

"That's right for me," she said. "I don't question how a woman responds. That's different for everyone."

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Democrats filed a resolution to ban the county from ever hiring a sex offender or anyone who settled a sexual harassment suit with public money.

"We need to protect our county workers from predators. We need to protect the public when they visit county offices, too," said Legislator Anita Mullane, D-Lockport, in a news release announcing the resolution.

Aronow has never been charged with or convicted of any crime.

Wydysh said she had no advance knowledge of Aronow's hiring at Employment and Training and learned of it from the media.

"I don't want to make this too much about Mr. Aronow personally, because I don't know him. I don't know his story," Wydysh said. "I know that 10 years ago, things were handled very differently than they are now, and neither person in that situation had a chance to tell their story in court."

Wydysh does not have a recording of the robocall to her constituents.

But The News obtained a recording of a similar call made to constituents of Legislator Jesse P. Gooch, R-Wheatfield.

"Would you want your daughter to work for a man who was fired from the State Senate for sexually harassing a female co-worker?" the woman's voice asks. "That's exactly what happened to women who work in our county government."

After recounting the backstory about Aronow, the voice on the robocall asks, "What kind of message does this send to female county workers? What kind of message does that send to women who pay taxes? Jesse Gooch is making us pay the salary of a man who doesn't respect us. That's wrong."

Wydysh said the call that one of her Lewiston constituents heard was similar except that it accused her of being a member of the "old boys' club."

According to Wydysh, the female voice on the call said it was paid for by the Niagara County Professional Women's Club. Online searches failed to turn up any such organization.

Wydysh also showed The News a text message she received on her cellphone from an unknown person that said, "As a women who was harassed by my former employer, I am ashamed of you!!!!!!!! Pigs get jobs in niagra county not, good honest people!"

Mullane and Dennis F. Virtuoso of Niagara Falls, the leader of the Legislator's Democratic minority, said they had no knowledge of the robocalls.

"I have no idea who made the calls," Virtuoso said. "I don't even know how to respond to this. I feel sorry for her if she ever was sexually harassed, but I would never do anything like that, that's for sure."

"I was totally shocked," Mullane said. "I will certainly reach out to Becky when I'm done at the end of the day. I hope she realizes that we would never have done that."

Neither she nor Virtuoso backed down from the resolution they're co-sponsoring, though GOP leaders have said state law prohibits a blanket ban of a class of noncriminals from seeking employment.

"Why are we exposing the county to that kind of liability, or putting anyone in that kind of situation?" Mullane asked. "I work at school and I know when people have been convicted of crimes like that, you can't live within a certain vicinity of a school, so how is this any different?"

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