Ex-town worker levels more accusations at Town Board members

10/27/2011 11:00 AM |

The former Riverhead Town employee who is threatening to sue the town for $1 million for “unlawful discharge” leveled more charges against Town Board members this week and said through an attorney that the officials misrepresented facts in last week’s News-Review article about her potential lawsuit.

Ex-Town Board coordinator Donna Zlatniski is claiming, among other things, that she was “coerced” to do campaign work for Riverhead Councilman Jim Wooten on town time. This week, her lawyer said Mr. Wooten lied by telling the newspaper that she had come to him offering campaign help.

The lawyer, Frank Scagluso of Smithtown, said it was Mr. Wooten who had approached Ms. Zlatniski, asking her to make phone calls to potential campaign donors. Those calls then became the subject of an internal ethics probe after it was reported to the ethics board that she made some calls from Town Hall.

Mr. Scagluso added that misuse of his client’s time didn’t stop with the campaign work. He said that Ms. Zlatniski was also “required” to babysit Mr. Wooten’s young daughter while the girl was in Town Hall.

As for Ms. Zlatniski’s charge that she was “set up” by Town Board members looking to catch her doing campaign work and force her to resign, Mr. Scagluso said a setup was orchestrated so that Linda Hulse — who had run unsuccessfully for town clerk as a Republican in 2009 — could have Ms. Zlatniski’s job permanently. Ms. Hulse had been filling in while Ms. Zlatniski was on maternity leave.

The notice of claim states that Councilwoman Jodi Giglio’s husband, Mike, called Ms. Zlatniski at work and asked her to relay campaign-related information to Mr. Wooten as a trap.
When asked for a response to the allegations, Supervisor Sean Walter reiterated to the News-Review that the Town Board “bent over backwards to accommodate Donna” after she had a child in July 2010, took seven months off and eventually wanted to work part time.

Mr. Walter likened the legal threats — especially a letter sent by Mr. Scagluso to the town demanding $125,000 or he would take the matter to the local media — to extortion. That demand, sent in a letter dated Oct. 5, was rejected by the town a week later.

“My best take on this is from that letter,” Mr. Walter said, “trying to extort $125,000 from the town, What kind of attorney is this? He’s off the wall. This is amazing that an attorney would start talking about things like this in the press.”

Mr. Wooten, a first-term councilman up for re-election next month, said he “couldn’t believe” Ms. Zlatniski was “bringing my daughter into this.” He had considered Ms. Zlatniski, who was hired in 2007, a close friend, he said.

“My daughter loved her,” Mr. Wooten said. “We went and visited her when she gave birth to her son and my daughter held her son when he was just a day old. We actually went and visited her the next day when she had the baby.”

He said he would sometimes bring his daughter to work for an hour or two when school was out, and that the girl liked to visit with Ms. Zlatniski and other workers. But he insisted he “would never tell her she had to babysit.”

“I don’t walk around thinking I’m everybody’s boss,” he continued. “She’s trying to give some credence to a bad situation, but I did not put her in the situation. She did offer to help me, and she says so in her testimony to the ethics board. I allowed her to [help], which I shouldn’t have.”

The ethics board’s report, dated June 16 and acquired by the News-Review, states that during Ms. Zlatniski’s appearance before the ethics board, “she originally testified that Councilman Wooten requested that she solicit political contributions, but after questioning she admitted that Councilman Wooten did not approach her or request that she solicit funds or contributions …”

Mr. Wooten told the News-Review that Ms. Zlatniski had approached him one day before she was leaving work about volunteering for him. This was about the time Mr. Wooten was publicly looking for the GOP’s nod to run for supervisor instead of the sitting supervisor, Sean Walter, also a Republican.

Mr. Wooten said Ms. Zlatniski had her jacket on and bags with her at the time, so when he gave her a list of phone numbers to call about a golf fundraiser, he assumed she would do so at home. She later told the ethics board she made some calls at home, but then some more from work the next day, according to the ethics report.

“Why would she be involved in making these phone calls?” her lawyer, Mr. Scagluso, asked. “She had been there for four years. She had never, ever got involved in any political activities, ever. Why should she do it?”

Mr. Scagluso called the ethics report, which he said was written up after his client had resigned from the position, “self-serving.”

“There are a lot of people who are trying to cover their behinds now and manipulating the facts,” he said. “The crux of the matter is that she was threatened with jail time and criminal charges and they were just looking to get rid of her so they could keep Hulse on.”

When asked how, exactly, Ms. Zlatniski was coerced to do work for Mr. Wooten, Mr. Scagluso said, “She resisted. She told him she did not feel comfortable, but when your boss tells you, ‘Do it anyway,’ you do it.”

He also said Ms. Zlatniski, who resigned in June, fell out of favor with the Walter administration because she was doing work for Mr. Wooten at the same time the councilman was challenging Mr. Walter for the 2011 Republican supervisor nomination.

“Mr. Walter told her she was going to face jail time and that she should pack her stuff and get out,” Mr. Scagluso said, claiming Mr. Walter said she could face criminal charges for doing private work on town time. “And why was Mr. Walter involved? It was punishment for her making calls for Mr. Wooten. And she was going to be replaced by [a person] of his choosing.”

Mr. Walter last week said he was only advising Ms. Zlatniski to seek counsel because she was being investigated by the ethics board — and that he would do the same for any employee. Councilman George Gabrielsen, who was also in the meeting with Mr. Walter and Ms. Zlatniski, corroborated that account.

“It was for her own protection,” Mr. Gabrielsen had said of Mr. Walter’s advice.

As for the allegations involving Ms. Hulse, Town Board members Jodi Giglio and John Dunleavy said in separate interviews this week that it was made clear to Ms. Hulse before she was hired to cover for Ms. Zlatniski that the job was only temporary.

“Donna was actually lobbying Linda to go and lobby the board members to allow her to come back part time [and they would split the hours],” Ms. Giglio said.

“Linda did not force Donna out,” Mr. Dunleavy said.“She made her own bed and slept in it. That’s how I feel. And I go back a long ways with the [Zlatniski] family and I would never say anything that was wrong.”

All Town Board members interviewed said that after returning to work seven months after having a baby, Ms. Zlatniski often left early or didn’t show, even after the board allowed her to work only part time, with Ms. Hulse taking the other days.

“We did every thing we could to keep her part time, but she still wasn’t showing up to work,” Mr. Walter said. “Sometimes she didn’t even call in.”
Mr. Walter said that despite that, the board still tried to help her.

In a statement given to the News-Review this week, Ms. Hulse called the claims that Ms. Zlatniski was run out of Town Hall to give her a job “untrue, ridiculous and I find it hurtful and unfair that she would even make a false claim against me.

“While I thoroughly enjoyed the temporary assignment, I always understood that my position was just that — temporary,” she said. “I believe as a new mother, Donna struggled with the decision to return to work or stay home with her new baby. Over several months, I received telephone calls and emails from Donna describing the difficulty she was having trying to make the decision. I always had a very good relationship with Donna so I am disappointed that she has accused me of forcing her out of the position.

“Ultimately, Donna made the decision to resign and care for her new baby full time. I was asked to consider returning to the position and I agreed … I work hard and believe I have earned a reputation as a dedicated, competent and reliable employee,” Ms. Hulse said.

mwhite@timesreview.com

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