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Top Niagara County Sex Crimes Prosecutor Says She Is Victim of Discrimination on Pay

By Tony Farina

Niagara County DA Mike Violante.

Liz Donatello and Robert Zucco. Photo courtesy Lockport Sun and Journal.
Zucco, an employee for Niagara County since 1979. earns $97,000. Donatello,
since starting with the county, on January 13, 2003, has received pay increases: $49,111 in 2007. $57,512 in 2009. $61,287 in 2010. $64,663 in 2011, $68,253 in 2012. She did not get a raise in 2013.

The Niagara Falls Reporter has learned that one of the top prosecutors in the Niagara County District Attorney's Office is threatening to bring legal action against the county on her claim that she has been discriminated against in pay and work conditions on the basis of gender.

An attorney representing Elizabeth R. Donatello, 43, a member of the DA’s Special Victims Unit, said he is awaiting a response from the county to a letter he sent in early July to District Attorney Michael Violante concerning Donatello’s claims that she is being discriminated against when it comes to salary in violation of equal pay-for-equal work statutes under both state and federal law.

Andrew Fleming, the attorney who represents Donatello, tells the Reporter that given the outstanding work his client has performed in the Special Victims Unit, she is unfairly paid at $68,253 per year compared to the other prosecutor assigned to the unit, Robert Zucco, who is paid $97,515 per year.

Donatello, who last year was named Prosecutor of the Year by Buffalo Crime Stoppers, has worked exclusively in the Special Victims Unit since joining the district attorney’s office in 2004. Her duties include heading the unit’s child pornography and internet crimes against children prosecutions.

According to Fleming, Donatello "performs the lion’s share" of work in the unit, and has obtained "a lot of convictions" compared to Zucco, 61, who joined the district attorney’s office in 1992 after the election of former District Attorney Matt Murphy who is now a State Supreme Court judge. Zucco first began work for the county in 1979 with the public defender’s office.

Fleming said the allegations contained in the letter to District Attorney Violante include claims that "women are treated differently in that office than the men," and that despite repeated attempts by Donatello to address the discriminatory atmosphere with Violante, including the disparity in pay, her complaints "fell on deaf ears."

"She [Donatello] has been a victim," said Fleming, "it’s not right," adding that Donatello works an average of 50 to 55 hours a week on the sometimes horrendous crimes the unit prosecutes, many of them against children, compared to a 25 to 30 hours a week on the job put in by Zucco.

"I think Elizabeth needs to be made whole," said Fleming, "and that includes a raise and back pay."

The county attorney’s office has taken the work computers of Donatello and District Attorney Violante, according to county sources, as part of its investigation into the discrimination claims by Donatello.

County Attorney Claude Joerg said he hired outside counsel, Bond Schoeneck & King, to do an investigation of the complaints listed by Fleming in his letter, and he expects to have a response to those claims this week.

While he would not comment specifically on the claims by Donatello cited in the letter from her attorney, he hinted in an email response that the county will likely oppose the claims regarding discrimination in the rate of pay.

In his response, Joerg said "there is a salary schedule for the District Attorney’s Office with ‘step’ increases within each grade. Due to budgetary issues there has been a freeze on all County step increases. Longevity and job performance results in obtaining more step increases within a pay grade. There must be a vacancy in a pay grade to move someone into a different pay grade."

The email continued: "Often openings in a pay grade become available due to attrition or promotion. The specifics involving individuals in question [Donatello and Zucco] will be further addressed upon completion of the investigation. Suffice it to say such a disparity is in no manner gender related. A presentation will eventually be made that will demonstrate that there is no disparity in pay in the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office based upon gender."

Freeze or no freeze, Violante himself is paid $144,875, which would make him the top paid employee in the county, according to the website See Through New York. Violante did not return a phone call from this reporter although he did speak to another reporter on the staff of this newspaper, and you can read his responses in the story under the byline of Mike Hudson.

There’s no shortage of top earners in the district attorney’s office, with Donatello’s $68,253 salary well down the list. Three deputies, Theodore Brenner, Doreen Hoffman, and Holly Sloma all make over $106,000 a year, according to the See Through website. Zucco’s salary is listed at $97,515.

Sources close to the camp of Donatello said part of her frustration has involved Zucco’s job performance, or lack thereof, which has resulted in serious cases being damaged or in some cases, lost.

The sources cite as one example of Zucco’s laxity was the criticism last year leveled by Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas following her dismissal of half of an indictment against a man who had been charged with two rapes.

As a result of the dismissal that was granted when prosecutors failed to meet a deadline to get ready for trial, the defendant, Nicholas Jenkins, avoided the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars if convicted. Zucco was left trying to research whether there was a way to salvage the predatory count after the judge dismissed it. Based on public accounts, he was unable to do so.

The formal county response to Donatello’s complaints are expected this week, and with Joerg already stating that there is no pay disparity based on gender, a full-scale legal battle is shaping up at the highest levels of the Niagara District Attorney’s Office which is likely to attract statewide attention because of the gender-based discrimination claim.

This newspaper has learned that County Attorney Joerg has given a limited briefing in executive session to county legislators about the hiring of outside counsel and the possibility of a lawsuit against the county by one of its own top prosecutors.



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

SEP 03, 2013