Ex-Town Board coordinator says she was set up and forced out of Town Hall

10/21/2011 8:00 AM |

A former Riverhead Town employee is preparing to sue the town for $1 million, claiming a town councilman “compelled and coerced” her to do campaign work for him and that in an effort to set her up and get rid of her, a councilwoman’s husband called the employee’s office and asked for campaign information.

Donna Zlatniski of Center Moriches, who stepped down as Town Board coordinator in June, filed a notice of claim — the precursor to a lawsuit — with the town clerk in August. Her lawyer has since made a settlement pitch to the town for $125,000. And he wrote in an Oct. 5 letter acquired by the News-Review that if the town doesn’t accept the offer, a lawsuit would be filed. The town’s attorney rejected that offer a week later.

In the two-page notice of claim, Ms. Zlatniski alleges that she was “wrongfully forced” by Councilman Jim Wooten “to engage in campaigning activity for his campaign, as a condition of her employment.

“The following day,” the document continues, “she was contacted by the spouse of … [Councilwoman] Jodi Giglio, regarding a fundraising event while she was on town property working as a Town Board coordinator. This action was taken to create a violation of campaign laws to place claimant Donna Zlatniski’s employment in jeopardy.”

She blames the town for her loss of employment.

In an interview this week, Mr. Wooten called the charges “ridiculous” and described Ms. Zlatniski as a close friend, whose family he’s known most of his life.

He said Ms. Zlatniski, who was hired by a previous administration to work for the Town Board, had approached him in late April or early May about doing campaign work, not the other way around. That happened about the same time Mr. Wooten, a first-term councilman up for re-election next month, was publicly seeking the Republican nod to run for supervisor against fellow Republican and sitting supervisor Sean Walter.

“She came to me,” Mr. Wooten said. “She was on her way home from work [after working a half-day]. It was like 1 p.m. and she says, ‘Do you need me to do anything [to help with the campaign]?’

“I have a lot of friends that work for the town and a lot of friends want to help me out. What am I going to tell her, no? So I gave her some contacts to call.”

He said Ms. Zlatniski had her jacket on and bags with her at the time, so he inferred that she would place the calls from home.

Word of the alleged campaign work was turned over to the town ethics board by an unnamed person. And it was later revealed through Ms. Zlatniski’s testimony during an ethics investigation that she had made four calls from her Town Hall office — even though Ms. Zlatniski never admitted to Mr. Wooten that she had done so, according to the probe’s findings. That document, also acquired by the News-Review, was written by Irene Pendzick of the ethics board and issued June 16.

Mr. Wooten told the newspaper that “to this day” Ms. Zlatniski has never admitted to him she made calls from Town Hall.

Writing on behalf of the ethics board, Ms. Pendzick called it “interesting and peculiar that Ms. Zlatniski admitted that she continued to deny [to Mr. Wooten] that she used town equipment and employment time.”

The board also took issue with “numerous theories” Ms. Zlatniski advanced “to explain, minimize, justify or eradicate any potential wrongdoing or violation of Chapter 18” of the town’s ethics code relating to doing private work on town time and with town equipment.

One theory was “that Councilwoman Giglio had set her up and arranged for her husband to call regarding a [Wooten] fundraiser … ” Another was that Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman George Gabrielsen had implied that she could face criminal charges for what she did in speaking to Mr. Giglio and suggested she get a lawyer and “pack up and never return to Town Hall… ”

The ethics board found that, in any event, Ms. Zlatniski had violated the town ethics code. The findings also read that “her actions and intentional misinformation relayed to the various board members is not a quality that is desirous of a town employee” and recommended the board’s findings go into her personnel file.

Ms. Zlatniski’s lawyer, Frank Scagluso of Smithtown, did not return a call seeking comment, but he told local news website RiverheadLOCAL, in a story published Friday, that the ethics board’s findings “were self-serving” because the town has an interest in discrediting his client.

Mr. Gabrielsen said that Mr. Walter did float the idea to Ms. Zlatniski that she consider hiring a lawyer — during a meeting among the three of them — but only because they both were trying to help her.

“She came to me with this whole thing, and my one and only advice to her was, I told her, ‘You should go to the ethics board and be honest with them, whether or not you think it will be incriminating,’ ” Mr. Gabrielsen recalled. “And Sean was sitting in the room also. He said, ‘Maybe you should retain an attorney, to protect yourself.’ Not that we were coming after her. It was all to protect her.

“She may have asked, ‘Can I be in big trouble?’ And Sean said, ‘Well, you could be.’ ”

Mr. Walter had the same recollection and said he would recommend that any employee who came to him while being suspected of misconduct seek the advice of counsel. And he said he never told her to “pack up and leave.”

“We didn’t force her out,” he said. “We actually tried to accommodate her every way possible, even letting her go to part-time. But even that wasn’t enough. She was a good worker but she wanted to be home with her child.”

While emphatically denying the allegations against them, both Mr. Wooten and Ms. Giglio speculated this week that Ms. Zlatniski — who they said had been collecting unemployment benefits even though she had resigned and under state law would not be eligible for benefits — decided to go after the town as retribution for her benefits being pulled.

“Her [notice of claim] wasn’t filed until the town realized she was getting unemployment benefits,” Mr. Wooten said. “Giglio challenged that and she lost her unemployment insurance.”

In an interview, Ms. Giglio said that in asking about Ms. Zlatniski’s collecting benefits, she was looking out for taxpayer dollars.

“She had applied for unemployment but she resigned,” Ms. Giglio said. “And the town is self-insured, so the taxpayers pay the unemployment benefits. We get a bill from the state. I wanted to know why she was collecting.”

Ms. Zlatniski’s notice of claim alleges the cancelling of benefits was a “violation of agreement by the Town of Riverhead not to oppose the application for unemployment benefits to which [she] is entitled.”

Ms. Giglio said she had no knowledge of any deal being worked out before Ms. Zlatniski’s resignation that would have allowed her to collect unemployment benefits. Mr. Gabrielsen said he did not think Ms. Zlatniski collected any checks but rather had applied for benefits and the application was denied.

Ms. Giglio called the charges against her and the other Town Board members “completely disingenuous” on Ms. Zlatniski’s part.

“From what I can see, this is a total manipulation of the system that stems from a sense of entitlement from a government employee,” Ms. Giglio said. “She was supposed to come back to work in September [2010] and she then decided that she wanted to stay out until mid-February. And she just never came back to work.”

Ms. Zlatniski gave birth to a child last July and then, after taking three months’ maternity leave, asked for another three months of unpaid time away, which was approved, Mr. Wooten said. Instead of returning to work in January, she then used newly accrued vacation time to stay out until February. From then on, both council members interviewed said, she often left early or came in late because of child care issues. She then asked the Town Board for reduced hours, another request that was granted, but shortly thereafter she resigned.

As for her husband’s call to Ms. Zlatniski, Ms. Giglio said Michael Giglio, who runs the pro shop at Indian Island Golf Course in Riverhead, wanted to know what time Mr. Wooten’s planned golf fundraiser — at a different golf course — was to start the following Monday and said he had a golf bag Mr. Wooten could raffle off.

He asked Ms. Zlatniski to relay that message, Ms. Giglio said.

“My husband couldn’t get in touch with me,” she recalled. “He was trying to set up the schedule for Monday. He knew Jim’s fundraiser was Monday and he didn’t want to set up any morning appointments if it was a morning tee-off. He simply called and said, ‘What time does Jim’s tournament start?’ and ‘I have a golf bag that I can raffle off.’ ”

The ethics board determined that while Mr. Wooten — who requested an advisory opinion from the board after he caught wind of complaints — didn’t know Ms. Zlatniski would do campaign work on town time, the councilman “did knowingly authorize her to participate in such activity,” according to the advisory opinion. It also advised that Mr. Wooten should have come to the ethics board before allowing Ms. Zlatniski to volunteer for him. The board asked that he “refrain from any such conduct in the future.”

“They said I should have used a little better judgment and talked to her after work or called her at her house and not do it on town time,” Mr. Wooten said of the board’s findings.
Mr. Wooten also said he believes politics may be at play.

“This supposedly happened in June, and now that it’s two, three weeks before the election and it comes up?” he questioned. “I vetted it through the ethics committee. They rendered their decision. I can live with that and I know that I will be cleared of all allegations against me.”

Ms. Zlatniski’s notice of claim is seeking $1 million in damages for “loss of employment without reasonable notice, loss of employment, damage to reputation” and “loss of companionship and society.”

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