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County to Defend Sexual Harassment Claims In District Attorney’s Office

By Mike Hudson

Niagara County District Attorney office members include, from left, Robert A. Zucco, Assistant; Cheryl L Nichols , Assistant; Elizabeth R. Donatello, Assis- tant; Holly E. Sloma, Deputy District Attorney; and Michael J. Violante, District Attorney. Photo courtesy Niagara Gazette

Unanimous statements made by the many women who work in the office of Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante stand sharply at odds with the accusations of Elizabeth Donatello, the assistant district attorney who has charged Violante with sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment for women.

Donatello was seen as a rising star in Violante’s office, prosecuting so-called "special victims" cases often involving children, rape and other sexual crimes.

As recently as December, 2009, the Niagara Gazette reported Violante going to bat for Donatello, arguing before the Niagara County Legislature that she deserved a raise. The same article noted Donatello had contributed to Violante’s election campaign.

"She’s very good at what she does," Violante told the Reporter in an exclusive interview over the weekend. "She had the ability to get guilty pleas that involved significant prison time."

But that was before Donatello’s husband, a politically connected private eye from Buffalo named Peter Vito, began stage managing her career.

In January or early February, Donatello approached Violante and asked for a raise. Violante explained that he could pass along her request, but had no authority to grant a raise on his own.

"She asked for a raise and I promised I would do whatever I could," Violante said.

In 2012, the Niagara County Legislature froze the wages of all county employees, and raises were impossible to come by. Donatello, like every other employee, found her request denied.

In March, staffers from the DA’s office gathered at the Jug, a popular Lockport restaurant, for a party to celebrate the retirement of longtime assistant district attorney Brian Seaman. Donatello attended the party with her much older husband, private detective Peter Vito, who caused a scene, numerous sources confirmed.

The object of Vito’s wrath was assistant district attorney Robert Zucco, who Vito maintained did less work than his wife, was incompetent and made around $30,000 more in annual salary.

Zucco has been employed as an attorney for the county since 1979, and has been with the district attorney’s office for more than 20 years, as opposed to Donatello's 10-year tenure, and under the "grade and steps" salary plan the office works with, is entitled to make more money. If Donatello had that much more time in than Zucco, her salary would have been higher than his by the same amount.

Recently, Zucco’s mother has become ill and sole care of two children adopted by him and his late wife has fallen on him.

Assistant District Attorney Holly Sloma attempted to defend her colleague Zucco, but Vito’s loud and belligerent attack prevented her from getting a word in edgewise, witnesses said. Sloma became so upset she left the party. Violante was unaware of Vito’s untoward outburst until the next week, when it was reported to him by staffers who had witnessed it. He met with Donatello who, like all members of the district attorney’s office - serves at Violante’s pleasure, and told her she could be dismissed for the incident and should advise her husband to be more careful in the future.

She left and told colleagues Violante had, in fact fired her. He said he had not.

In July, Donatello authored a letter claiming that she was sexually harassed by Violante, and that the district attorney’s office was a hotbed of toxic male behavior that resulted in a hostile workplace environment for women.

The sudden accusations had nothing to do with the $30,000 she and her husband felt she was entitled to in order to gain parity with Robert Zucco’s salary, as Vito had argued at the Seaman retirement party.

Donatello claimed that Violante had touched her on the shoulder and complimented her on a new suit she was wearing. Asked about the incident, the 68-year-old district attorney said he had indeed touched her on the shoulder and remarked about the suit, something he might just as easily have done had Donatello been a man.

Further, Donatello charged that Violante had pornography on his office computer, apparently referring to an off-color email sent by an old college chum, Violante said.

But the crux of the letter concerned the plight of all the women working in the DA’s office, and the harassment and abuse endured there on a daily basis.

Donatello’s charges came as a surprise to the very women she was purporting to defend.

County Attorney Claude Joerg has been working overtime gathering statements from each and every woman employed in the DA’s office, from deputy district attorneys like Holly Sloma on down to female members of the cleaning crew. Not a single woman reported any harassment whatsoever, nor were they aware of anyone else being harassed.

Violante says he is proud of the contributions made by the women in his office, and two of his three top deputies, Sloma and Doreen Hoffman, are female, as are eight of the 19 assistant district attorneys.

Because Donatello accused Violante of having pornography on his computer, Joerg asked both parties to surrender their computers. Violante gave his willingly but Donatello refused. Later, after her computer was removed while Donatello was out of her office, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Buffalo was contacted with information that Joerg was in possession of child pornography, which Donatello had on her computer as evidence.

It is unclear whether Donatello, her husband, or both went to the feds, who seem unlikely to take any action in any event.

After receiving the letter containing Donatello’s myriad allegations and conducting a preliminary investigation, Joerg met in executive session with members of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses of the county legislature. Donatello was likely to file a lawsuit, he said, despite there being no evidence that Violante had done anything wrong.

An outside counsel would need to be hired in order to defend the county, Joerg added, but the complete lack of evidence against the district attorney would all but assure victory in the courtroom.

Sources told the Reporter last week that Peter Vito has taken to touting his young wife as "the next DA" of Niagara County. He knows his way around the political block, having worked often with former Erie County Executive Chris Collins.

As for Violante, a proud member of one of Niagara County’s most prominent political families, feelings of sorrow are mixed with anger over what amounts to a late hit in a long career previously untainted by any whiff of scandal.

One thing is certain. If Donatello’s case goes to court, the big losers will be - as usual - the taxpayers of Niagara County, the same people who will judge her should she decide to run for district attorney one day herself.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

SEP 03, 2013