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Former county social services head pleads not guilty to raping employee

Former county social services head pleads not guilty to raping employee

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Former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger remains in jail pending sentencing. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

ALBANY — Former Erie County Social Services Commissioner Albert Dirschberger was charged Monday in Albany with raping one of his county employees last month during a work-related trip to the state capital.

Dirschberger, who abruptly resigned Dec. 28 after county officials learned he was under investigation, pleaded not guilty to third-degree rape and third-degree criminal sexual act at his arraignment before Albany County Court Judge Roger McDonough. The judge released Dirschberger on $5,000 on cash bail.

The indictment accuses Dirchberger, 53, of raping the 28-year-old woman while she was unable to consent either in the late hours of Dec. 5 or early morning hours of Dec. 6 at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Albany.

Albany County District Attorney  P. David Soares' office did not release details on why the woman was unable to consent.

In New York, a person is guilty of third-degree rape when they engage in sexual intercourse with a person who is incapable of giving consent because they are less than 17 years old or because of some other factor, which can include intoxication or a mental disability.

Dirschberger, dressed in a grey suit, grey tie and light blue shirt, looked nervous and pale when he appeared in court with attorney James Knox, who entered the "not guilty" plea to the two charges.

Assistant Albany County District Attorney Jennifer McCanney told the judge the DA's Office intends to use written and verbal conversations between Dirschberger and "a public servant," including a recorded phone call.

McCanney did not identify the public servant and Knox would not provide details on this. But Knox insisted the alleged sexual act between Dirschberger and the woman was consensual.

"I can tell you that Mr. Dirschberger did not participate in any non-consented-to act, and anything that happened was absolutely consented to, and one thing that we're certain of is that regret does not make a case of rape," Knox said outside the courtroom following the 10-minute arraignment.

Dirschberger was taken in and out of the courtroom through a side door.

Knox told reporters Dirschberger looks forward to proving his innocence. The attorney added that he requested information on the allegations from the prosecution and "we look forward to learning some information that will be helpful in defending Mr. Dirschberger."

Dirschberger had traveled from the Buffalo area earlier Monday and surrendered to Albany police for processing on the charges before appearing in court.

Knox is an associate of Albany defense attorney E. Stewart Jones, who was hired by Dirschberger this past weekend. Jones said he was in New York City and unable to make Monday's court arraignment. Jones has represented a number of high-profile defendants in Albany.

Dirschberger's defense team also includes the law firm of well known Buffalo defense attorney Terrence M. Connors. A statement issued by a lawyer in Connors' firm stated that Dirschberger  wants to move quickly in clearing his name.

“His exemplary and unblemished record of over 30 years as a social worker, an educator, and a public servant speaks for itself," said the attorney, Nicholas A. Romano.

Dirschberger resigned from his $116,693 a year job at the request of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz after Poloncarz learned he was under criminal investigation. Poloncarz announced that day that he had requested Dirschberger's resignation after concluding an internal investigation into the allegations.

Social Services head abruptly resigns amid criminal probe

Poloncarz said he was made aware Dec. 23 "of an alleged serious incident involving the commissioner and a subordinate employee in Albany, N.Y., during a conference on Dec. 5 or 6 of this year." He said an Albany police detective confirmed for him that Dirschberger was "a person of interest in a criminal investigation."

On Monday, Poloncarz said he stands by his previous actions seeking Dirschberger's resignation.

Because of the investigation, Niagara University last month placed Dirschberger on administrative leave from his job as assistant coach of the women's softball team.

First Deputy Commissioner Marie Cannon has been named acting commissioner of the Erie County Department of Social Services.

Dirschberger headed Erie County's largest department, with a staff of roughly 1,600 employees and annual spending of about $600 million in local, state and federal money. He was appointed in March 2015, taking over a department that had come under heavy criticism after the deaths of three children whose families had been investigated by Child Protective Services. The department continues to grapple with high staff turnover rates and a campaign by CPS workers for higher pay.

Poloncarz nominated Dirschberger for social services commissioner after he had served only two months as executive director of Journey's End Refugee Services. He earned his doctorate in social work from the University at Buffalo and previously worked for many years at the Gateway-Longview human services agency, which provides services to children with disabilities. Dirschberger was a 27-year employee of Gateway-Longview Family Resource Center, where he served as a vice president from 2002 until 2014.

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