Schoharie County

2nd report blasts Schoharie County personnel officer

Charges of harassment, intimidation and playing politics are leveled against Schoharie County Person

Charges of harassment, intimidation and playing politics are leveled against Schoharie County Personnel Officer Cassandra Ethington in a 56-page report released on Friday by the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors.

Ethington, who was placed on administrative leave with pay on Friday, is accused in the report of harassing then-County Public Health Director Kathleen Strack, singling out employees to lay off, conspiring to take over the health department, awarding a political crony a job and being incompetent.

Additional Coverage

A copy of the first report is available on the Capital Region Scene blog

We also have the full text of Ethington’s response.

And there is also the entire second report.

The report is the second from the law firm Fitzmaurice & Walsh, which started looking into allegations of workplace harassment in the county last October. The Board of Supervisors requested the outside investigation in order to determine whether there was a pattern or instances of ongoing intimidation or discrimination that led to a rash of county employees filing complaints against their bosses.

Lawyers from Fitzmaurice & Walsh determined in their first report, a 107-page document released to the public on Oct. 24 and based on interviews with about 400 employees and their supervisors, that the county government was dysfunctional and said there was “incivility, rudeness and outright hostility between board members, department heads, employees and members of the public.”

The follow-up report was commissioned in May by the Board of Supervisors, which had been given the first report in February, even though they didn’t release it to the public until eight months later. In the second report, the board wanted the firm to consider any discrepancies from the first report.

Despite the broad mandate, the investigation focused its attention on Ethington because a majority of the complaints from county employees were about her, wrote attorney Mark Fitzmaurice in the second report.

The allegations

The second report, which conducted additional interviews and reviewed employees’ emails, paints a picture of Ethington conspiring with a handful of board supervisors to oust then-Public Health Director Kathleen Strack so she could take over, which ended up happening, despite later claims that she never ran the department. Emails from Ethington show her criticizing the management of Strack and making disparaging remarks about her to board supervisors, while also suggesting to at least one supervisor in an email that she would like to be considered for the post.

The second report also expands on the first report’s determination that two public health employees, Penny Grimes and Eva Gigandet, were improperly targeted for layoffs.

Ethington is also accused of rewriting a job description for a cleaner position so it could go to an unidentified person who worked on a political campaign with her. The person, who got the job, stated that they saw the job posting online, despite applying for the post before it was advertised online and sending repeated emails to Ethington about getting a job. Shortly before this candidate was considered, the job description was rewritten to exclude the two current cleaners from applying.

There are allegations of multiple violations of the state’s General Municipal and Civil Service laws and it’s also not clear whether she was aware of committing certain violations, as she asks the Board of Supervisors’ attorney in an email whether she can let an outside agency “take a peek” at civil service employees’ records, which Fitzmaurice describes as violations of the most basic tenets of the state’s General Municipal and Civil Service laws.

Ethington, whose husband Todd is a candidate on the Conservative and Independence lines for county sheriff in Tuesday’s election, passed on several opportunities to meet with investigators for the second report. She would not take questions on Saturday about the report, citing the advice of counsel, but did have a prepared rebuttal.

In the written comment she said that any layoffs that she was involved with were born out of the county’s fiscal crisis and noted that previous legal proceedings filed by laid-off employees have cleared her of any wrongdoing.

“I have spent my entire professional career at Schoharie County doing my best to serve the taxpayer and protect the rights of the hard working employees of Schoharie County,” Ethington said.

Meets expectations

Supervisor Gene Milone, D-Schoharie, who called for the investigation last year, said the report met all his expectations and then some. “It’s just outrageous what has taken place in this county,” he said. “We had a personnel officer who was totally out of control.”

Because of the narrow scope of the second report, it doesn’t deal with allegations raised in the first report, including those in which county employees were named. Milone said it was unfortunate that people unfairly named in the first report weren’t publicly cleared, but argued that if they weren’t mentioned in the follow-up it was because the allegation was baseless.

He said this included the charges against Schoharie County Treasurer William Cherry, whom Milone credited with an impeccable reputation. Milone said he was asking Board Chairman Philip Skowfoe Jr., D-Fulton, to issue a report clearing people like Cherry.

There were some criticisms that the investigations were a witch hunt, but Supervisor Earl Van Wormer III, R-Esperance, rejected that claim. “I’m not out to get anybody,” he said. “I just wanted the concerns of the public and employees addressed.”

The investigation into the county’s work atmosphere has cost more than $300,000, but Van Wormer said the expense is necessary if people feel discriminated against or harassed and could save the county many millions if it prevents a lawsuit from impacted employees. “[If] we can prevent this from happening again, it is well worth it,” he added.

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