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Veteran worker sues town animal shelter

The Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantagh.

The Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantagh. (Oct. 27, 2010) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

A veteran employee of the Hempstead Animal Shelter has filed a federal lawsuit charging that she was denied promotion because she was not active enough in the local GOP.

Theresa Kohutka, an animal control officer, claims that because of her failure to embrace the party and because of her gender, the shelter became a hostile environment with other workers spreading lies about her personal life and conspiring to deny her opportunities for overtime.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the Eastern District of New York, names Hempstead Town and five current and former shelter workers.

"I dealt with a lot of harassment almost on a daily basis," Kohutka, 44, said in an interview Monday. "I just couldn't take it anymore."

Hempstead Town spokesman Mike Deery said the lawsuit was "without merit." Citing a policy of not talking publicly about litigation, he declined further comment.

John E. Ryan, an attorney for the Nassau County Republican Party, which isn't named in the lawsuit, had no comment.

Newsday reported in January that nine shelter employees were paid more than $100,000 in 2010. Of the nine, which represented nearly a third of the shelter's full-time staff in 2010, seven had won Nassau GOP committee seats the year prior.

Kohutka's lawsuit touches on the widespread and bipartisan practice of political patronage on Long Island, said Larry Levy, who directs the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

"The case may or may not have merit, but it's certainly true that both major parties have expected some level of participation as part of governmental employment," Levy said. "And most workers have been willing to oblige. It's part of the culture."

Discrimination based on political affiliation is illegal in the public sector, with an exemption for those in policymaking roles or confidential posts such as personal secretary, said Leon Friedman, professor of Constitutional law at Hofstra's School of Law.

Kohutka began working at the shelter in 1987 and was until recently steward there for the town employees' union.

In 2009, she took a civil service test for a supervisory position. As he had done over the course of her employment, then-acting shelter director Charles Milone told Kohutka to join her town GOP club and get more involved in the Republican Party if she wanted to get promoted, the lawsuit says.

Milone could not be reached Monday night.

"I believe in the party," said Kohutka, a registered Republican. "But I don't think it should be part of my daily work or whether I get advanced or not."

Kohutka received the highest score on the promotion test, according to the suit, but was passed over for a couple at the shelter with strong GOP ties.

Since late March Kohutka has been working at the union offices and is no longer at the shelter, though she's continuing to collect her salary. Her suit seeks unspecified damages.

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