By Jano Tantongco
The New York State Division of Human Rights has determined that a sexual harassment complaint against Town of Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther can go before an administrative law judge.
The determination was signed off on Jan. 27 by Joyce Yearwood-Drury, director of the division’s Office of Sexual Harassment Issues, after an investigation found that “probable cause” exists in the case.
“After investigation, the division has determined that is has jurisdiction in this matter and that probable cause exists to believe that the respondents have engaged in or are engaging in the lawful discriminatory practice complained of,” the determination states.
The complaint was initially filed on July 27, 2016 by Laurie Beth Austin, who has worked for the Town of Huntington’s Highway Department for the past 27 years. Austin assumed the role of Gunther’s confidential secretary beginning Jan. 1, 2016. Gunther was elected two years prior. Austin maintained her established position of senior account clerk typist and remains employed by the town in its highway department.
Austin told state investigators that Gunther made numerous unwanted advances toward her, including trying to kiss her; trying to hold her hand; calling her “his girl;” and telling her what outfits to wear, according to the complaint. Austin also submitted to investigators voice recordings of conversations that allegedly took place between herself and Gunther.
“I know how you feel about me and I know you want more… it can’t happen. I’m here to do a job. I said no right from.. No, you’re my boss, no you’re married, always no,” the complaint alleges in the complaint, adding that Gunther apologized after that.
Austin also claimed that she told Gunther to stop his behavior on multiple occasions.
Gunther, meanwhile, denied to state investigators the allegations of harassment, and also denied claims of discrimination, according to the complaint.
He told investigators that he referred to females employees as his “girls” and male employees as his “guys,” the complaint reads. Gunther also claimed he customarily kissed female employees’ cheeks on holidays and birthdays; “may have patted them on the back;” and gave gifts to both male and female employees on birthdays and holidays.
With respect to his relationship with Austin, he told investigators that he gave her a necklace for Christmas, according to the complaint. He said she called him at home to thank him, and also claimed that his wife was aware of this. In return, Austin bought Gunther two bottles of bourbon, gift cards and small cash gifts, according to Gunther’s statement to investigators. He added that she was not “compelled” to do this.
The complaint also shows that, in June 2016, Austin met with the town to detail her concerns, according to the complaint. She was advised that she and Gunther would be separated as the town investigated the issue. Though Gunther denied the allegations, he agreed with the town’s decision to separate the two.
Gunther did not return a call for comment before deadline Wednesday.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Austin’s Huntington-based attorney, Christopher Cassar, claimed that Gunther created a hostile work environment for Austin because of “unwanted sexual advances.”
“In addition to that, co-employees were resentful because they believed there was a sexual relationship between them, which was false,” Cassar said.
Cassar said they plan to “explore all options,” which includes bringing the case to the administrative law judge and potentially filing a civil rights action.
Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone said Tuesday that the town did not have any more information than what was already publicly available.
“At this point, we really don’t have a comment,” Petrone said. “It’s actually in the legal process, and therefore we really can’t comment.”
The public hearing before an administrative law judge had yet to be scheduled as of deadline.