State protects abusers, women harassed in public jobs say

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — He was accused of calling his female co-workers “whores,” grabbing one woman’s head and forcing it between his legs, threatening another with sexual assault and exposing himself in the office.

Now, more than a year after he was suspended, Chad Dominie may be returning to work as an administrative assistant for New York’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities after an arbitrator rejected the state’s attempt to fire him.

Harassment victims and their advocates say his reinstatement would be another example of how the state is failing to protect government workers from toxic workplaces.

The state’s protections for workers accused of misconduct are so strong, they say, it can make it difficult to fire men accused of grotesque abuses.

State laws designed to protect workers from harassment aren’t effective if the state doesn’t follow through in disciplining the employees responsible, said Mary Tromblee, a nurse who was one of the women who accused Dominie, said

“Gov. Cuomo keeps saying we have one of the strongest laws in the nation. But what good are the laws if they’re not enforced?” she said.

A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said his administration would “use every tool at our disposal to ensure a safe workplace” free from harassment.

“It is egregious that current law makes getting rid of bad actors so difficult,” said spokesman Jason Conwall.

State workers in New York are entitled to appeal disciplinary actions and can often take their case to an arbitrator.

In Dominie’s case, an arbitrator found him guilty of four of 10 charges against him but ruled he shouldn’t be fired. Instead, he won’t receive back pay for the 17 months he was on unpaid suspension.

Dominie, 45, declined to comment for this article. He told The Associated Press last winter that he hadn’t touched anyone inappropriately or exposed himself. But he acknowledged engaging in “horse playing” and said he didn’t think anyone would be offended.

“I tell her to ‘shut her whore mouth’ and I’m the big villain?” he said in February.

Advocates say Dominie’s case is all too common, though it’s hard to know how big the state’s harassment problem is because of the lack of information available to the public.

There are no regular reports on the number of harassment complaints made against state employees, how many cases are sent to arbitration or how many employees are fired.

The No. 2 official at Dominie’s agency, Jay Kiyonaga, was fired last year after the state inspector general uncovered “reprehensible” harassment and sexually inappropriate acts going back several years. He was also accused of retaliating against a female staffer who spoke up about his behavior.

The state announced his firing with a news release touting the state’s aggressive handling of harassment. Yet the same day, he was quietly transferred back to his old agency, the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, thanks to a state rule allowing some managers to revert to a prior state job if fired within a year.

The Justice Center, which investigates mistreatment of disabled people, immediately suspended Kiyonaga, barred him from the office and moved to terminate him.

Sixteen months later, though, Kiyonaga is still making an annual salary of $136,000 while he appeals his termination.

Reached by phone, he declined to comment.

An investigation by the USA Today Network’s Albany Bureau last year used open records requests to identify more than $11 million in taxpayer-funded legal settlements in the past decade with workers, almost all women, who had complained of harassment or sexual assault.

“It’s not one bad apple, it’s a bad orchard,” said Rita Pasarell, an attorney and member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, an organization of onetime legislative staffers who faced harassment from their former bosses.

Officials won’t detail the 10 allegations against Dominie or say which ones he was found guilty of. The arbitrator in the case, Mary Crangle, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The state could try to appeal the arbitrator’s decision. A spokeswoman for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities said only that “Mr. Dominie has not returned to work as OPWDD reviews our options.”

Supervisors largely ignored months of complaints about Dominie’s conduct and didn’t move to fire him until the police were called, Tromblee said. Dominie, who made $41,000 a year before his suspension, was arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty last year to a harassment violation — less than a misdemeanor.

Tromblee recounted episodes in which Dominie lifted her skirt, exposed himself at her desk and reached down her blouse. She took out a restraining order and filed a federal harassment complaint after she said Dominie threatened to sexually assault her. Dominie was charged with harassment

Tromblee and other women in her office were shocked and disgusted to learn that Dominie will be returning to work, she said. She fears he will be sent back to the same office in Glens Falls.

“What does this say,” she said, “to the women of New York?”

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