What to Know
In the last 5 years, NY paid more than $5M to settle suits against 70 state employees accused of sexual harassment or gender discrimination
According to an I-Team analysis of state payroll records, half of the accused employees have been allowed to keep state jobs
One employee's lawyer warned against assuming that the mere existence of a settlement means someone committed a bad act
Over the last five years, New York has paid more than $5 million to settle lawsuits against 70 state employees accused of sexual harassment or gender discrimination.
And according to an I-Team analysis of state payroll records, half of the accused employees have been allowed to keep state jobs - even though taxpayers shelled out big bucks to compensate their alleged victims.
In one instance, Javier Figueroa, a former nursing administrator at the state’s Veterans Home in Montrose, was accused by two women in two separate sexual harassment lawsuits. The New York State Department of Health settled both of those suits for a total of $130,000. No one admitted wrongdoing.
After the settlements, payroll records show Figueroa left his job at the Veterans Home and took a job as a nursing administrator in another state agency, the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.
Jonah Bruno, a spokesman for the Department of Health, said the cases against Figueroa included “substantiated allegations of sexual harassment” and the Department “took action to discipline Figueroa appropriately.” But Bruno declined to say if DOH notified OPWDD about the sexual harassment cases before he was hired there.
The I-Team reached out to OPWDD, but that agency has yet to respond.
Neither Javier Figueroa nor his attorney has responded to I-Team requests for comment.
In another of the settled lawsuits, Jennifer Lastra, a former rehabilitation counselor with the state’s Office of Mental Health, accused a co-worker of trying to rape her in her office. According to a complaint filed in June of 2017, Paul Burke, a fellow rehab counselor, “jumped on [the] Plaintiff as she sat in her office chair and began to rub his erect penis on her. . . in an attempt to rape [the] Plaintiff.”
Lastra says she initially complained to her managers and to the NYPD. When neither agency could substantiate her allegations, she sued. Twelve months later New York State paid $25,000 to settle the case. No one admitted wrongdoing and Burke remains employed as a state rehab counselor.
“He would have eventually attacked me again. I have no doubt about that,” Lastra said in an interview with the I-Team.
Lastra’s attorney, Kelly O’Connell, said it’s troubling that the state saw fit to pay tax dollars in order to settle the case, but found no reason to discipline Burke.
“Based on what I have, and I believe my client, it makes me scared for other people working there. Or the patients that they have.”
Burke’s attorney, Stephen Hans, said his client denies the charges against him and was ready to fight them in court, but after New York State agreed to the settlement, Lastra withdrew her complaint.
“Nothing was ever substantiated. He never received any proof,” Hans said. “When it was withdrawn against him, he was happy.”
Hans also warned against assuming that the mere existence of a settlement means someone committed a bad act.
“If you find the facts are unsubstantiated but it costs you a few dollars to get rid of the case, that doesn’t mean the person did it. It just means you’re spending the taxpayer money wisely.”
Don Kaplan, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo, echoed that analysis. He said all allegations of discrimination and harassment are thoroughly investigated, but relatively few are actually substantiated.
“In some instances, even when an investigation found all allegations to be without merit, some cases may have been settled for a variety of reasons, including a preference to avoid further protracted litigation and costs to the taxpayer,” Kaplan said.
Assembly member Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale), a sex assault survivor herself, said it is important that the state compensate victims of alleged harassment and discrimination, but she said the I-Team findings suggest too many bad-actor employees are being allowed to skate when tax dollars are being used to settle cases involving their alleged behavior.
"There is no settlement without some kind of acknowledgement that something must have gone on. I mean, if that’s not the case then we are wasting taxpayer dollars completely," Paulin said.
Last spring, Cuomo signed a package of sexual harassment legislation that included a provision making it easier for New York to seek monetary reimbursement from state employees found liable for sexually-harassing behavior.
Paulin applauded that legislation, adding that there is another strategy that could help deter harassment and discrimination in state offices.
“We should see more people be fired,” she said.