A former employee that oversaw the civil division in the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Office is taking legal action against the county, claiming she was wrongfully terminated after enduring months of workplace harassment and gender discrimination that officials turned a blind eye to.
Ileen Varno filed a summons against the county, Sheriff Dominic Dagostino, Undersheriff James Barrett and Lt. Michael Geraci last week, alleging her civil rights were violated and she endured workplace violence and retaliation under New York State Human Rights Law.
Varno, who said she worked for the county for 19 years until her position was terminated last April, said the alleged harassment dates back to late 2019, when Geraci was promoted and began overseeing her department. The Times Union first reported the summons had been filed.
She said Geraci looked down on women and called into question her work despite not having a firm understanding of how the civil office operates in an attempt to intimidate her.
“Only because I’m a female and I know that,” she said.
In early 2020, not long after the pandemic took root in New York, Geraci asked the civil office to begin filing affidavits on behalf of police officers amid reduced staffing in her office necessitated by the virus. When she refused, Geraci and Barrett became angry, telling her “it was women’s work,” Varno said.
“The culture is, in my opinion, if you don’t do it as the man says, we have no use for you,” she said, adding she was never asked to file paperwork on behalf of officers in the past.
Varno said she filed numerous verbal complaints with Dagostino, but nothing was ever done and the harassment grew worse as time went on. The sheriff did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Eventually she filed a workplace violence complaint with the county while she was on COVID leave last April. When she returned, her belongings were boxed up and she later learned her position had been eliminated, a move she believes was made in retaliation for filing the complaint.
Geraci and Barrett, who became undersheriff in 2017, could not be reached for comment.
Geraci was hired by the department in 2016 while he was suspended from the Albany police department after allegations arose that he grabbed a 12-year-old boy by the neck and struck him in the chest after the boy and a group of friends threw fruit at his home on Halloween.
In 2006, a grand jury declined to indict Geraci on charges related to his handling of a 73-year-old suspect, in which the now lieutenant allegedly dragged him out of a police van by his ankles.
An attorney for Varno, Ryan Finn, said his client was never physically assaulted, but was forced to endure months of harassment and abuse by her superiors, particularly Geraci, leading to an unsafe work environment.
“There were no allegations it was physical. She was not physically harmed, but [Geraci is] a very threatening individual and his conduct, especially with his past, was a concern for my client,” he said.
Finn declined to get into specifics but said he has ample evidence proving his clients claims and plans to submit evidence that the county will have a difficult time explaining.
“At the end of the day my client can’t lose her job without the sheriff making a call,” he said. “There are going to allegations in the suit that he himself said several sexual harassment and conduct against my client as well.”
Christopher Gardner, a lawyer for the county, said Varno’s claims were investigated and determined to be unfounded and that Varno declined to cooperate with the investigation. He said no other workplace complaints have been filed against any of the officers that he is aware of.
The county, he said, created a new role within the civil office to replace Varno because she stopped coming to work, but established a new position at a county-run nursing home for Varno, which she has refused to accept.
“She wasn’t coming back to work so we needed to create a position that could be filled easily to get the work done,” Gardner said. “She could come back to her prior position, she could come back to a new position that was essentially created for her at the nursing home. She can come back anytime she wanted to.”
But Finn said he takes issues with Gardner’s comments, adding that the county failed to properly notify his client that her position was being eliminated and did not adequately investigate her complaint, noting he would have been more than happy to provide information on behalf of his client.
“My client isn’t the one under the law that is obligated to look into these things,” Finn said. He said he believes the county failed to properly investigate his client’s claims and is now seeking to deflect responsibility.
Varno, meanwhile, said she wasn’t contacted until months after she filed her complaint after her position was eliminated and questions why more wasn’t done to protect her amid the ongoing harassment.
She said she has started attending therapy and taking antidepressants as a result of the matter.
“Your supposed to remove the bully not the victim,” she said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.