By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit involving a former Niagara County lawmaker who was accused of sexual harassment while working for the New York State Senate Majority several years ago.
Documents on file with the New York State Supreme Court in Buffalo show a former administrative aide for the senate majority will receive $75,000 as part of the settlement in her 2009 sexual harassment lawsuit against Glenn Aronow, a former state senate staffer who represented the city of Lockport in the county legislature for two terms before resigning in 2006.
Court documents show the plaintiff's attorney, Steve Cohen, will receive an additional $15,000, bringing the total state cost for the settlement to $90,000.
According to the agreement filed with the Erie County Clerk's Office on Monday, the defendants in the case, including Aronow, admitted no wrongdoing but approved the settlement for "the convenience of all parties."
The settlement agreement was signed by the plaintiffs' attorney, Steven Cohen of Amherst, Aronow's lawyer, Lisa Poch from the Hamburg firm Chiacchia & Fleming, and Kathleen Kaczor, an assistant from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office who represented the state and the senate majority, both of which were also named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Neither Aronow nor Poch could not be reached for comment Friday.
In documents filed with the court, the female plaintiff accused Aronow of subjecting her to a "daily campaign of sexual harassment" starting in October 2007 when they worked together at a state senate office in Buffalo. In her lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that the inappropriate conduct involved "sexually orientated physical contact, gestures, threats and unwanted exposure to pornographic materials."
The plaintiff also sued the state and the senate majority, charging that superiors inside the senate office in Buffalo should have done more to discipline Aronow. In her court papers, the plaintiff alleged that at one point she was told Aronow would be removed from the office, only to be "confronted" by him when she returned to work.
The plaintiff's lawsuit also contended that, as a result of her complaints, she was prevented from performing work associated with her position. According to court documents, the plaintiff later took a medical leave of absence and was discharged from her duties.
In its response to the lawsuit, the state denied the female employee's allegations and argued that proper and reasonable steps were taken in response to her concerns. The state also insisted that her complaints were investigated thoroughly and impartially and appropriate actions were taken in response.
Aronow took a job at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership after leaving the senate majority office. He later accepted a position as a constituent relations aide with state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane.
On Friday, Alisa Colatarci, chief of staff for Maziarz, said Aronow is no longer employed in the senator's office and hasn't worked there since last November.
Amy Hope Witryol, the Democratic challenger in this year's race for the 62nd Senate District seat currently held by Maziarz, called Friday for an expanded review of the source and nature of payments involved in the Aronow case, citing what she described as similarities in an ongoing investigation by the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics into the state Assembly's handling of allegations of sexual harassment against one of its own - Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
The state's top watchdog group recently subpoenaed members of the chamber's Ethics and Guidance Committee as part of probe examining how harassment complaints against Lopez were handled by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan. That case included a confidential $135,000 settlement with two female Lopez employees who filed complaints. Various reports have indicated that the settlement was authorized by aides from the offices of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
Witryol said she was aware of the lawsuit filed against Aronow but did not discuss it publicly until now because she wanted the legal proceedings to play out. Now that a settlement has been reached, Witryol said she believes taxpayers deserve to know how the state intends to pay for it and where it will get the money from.
"Taxpayers paid $90,000 and that's just the settlement, not including the costs for representation," Witryol said. "Now, taxpayer money is involved."
Maziarz insisted he wasn't aware of the pending civil lawsuit against Aronow when he joined his staff in 2009. Upon learning of this fact, Maziarz said he gave Aronow the presumption of innocence, while stressing that "anything other than full exoneration, including a settlement in which he did not admit to wrongdoing, would lead to his termination."
Maziarz said he "promptly" asked for Aronow's resignation last November after his former staff member informed him that settlement negotiations had started.
"There are no allegations against me or my staff," Maziarz said in a statement released Friday afternoon. "The incident Amy mentions took place in a different senate office. The plaintiff’s attorney has stated that I’ve had nothing to do with any of this. In my 17 years in the Senate, I have never had any incidents at all on my staff. I would never tolerate or condone any of the alleged actions. I also absolutely do not support using taxpayer dollars for these legal settlements."
Witryol characterized Aronow as a "key Maziarz operative," noting that he has not only worked for the state in the senator's office, but has been involved in Maziarz's re-election campaign, including efforts to pass designation petitions the senator needed to secure spots on this year's primary and general election ballots. Witryol said it's "reasonable to assume" Aronow continues to work for Maziarz, regardless of which payroll he's on and suggested the settlement issue raises "serious questions about Maziarz's "judgment and ethics."
"Certainly, Mr. Aronow was very involved in the senator's campaign and to my knowledge still is," Witryol said.
Colatarci insisted that is not the case and Witryol is wrong about Aronow being a paid member of Maziarz's campaign staff. She said Aronow is one of hundreds of volunteers supporting the Niagara County Republican Party and its candidates in elections this year. She noted that, as a notary public in Niagara County, Aronow is in a position to pass designating positions for a variety of candidates, including Maziarz.
Maziarz suggested the effort to tie his office to the Aronow case is another example of Witryol's interest in damaging his reputation in her bid to defeat him in this year's election.
“Amy Witryol has filed three JCOPE complaints against me," Maziarz said. "She has inundated the Senate with foil requests for information that is already public on the Internet. She is constantly hurling allegations that are baseless and today is no exception."