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Sexual harassment complaint filed against Huntington official

The New York State Division of Human Rights

The New York State Division of Human Rights has ruled that a sexual harassment complaint filed against Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther and the town can go to a judge. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The New York State Division of Human Rights has ruled that a sexual harassment complaint filed against Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther and the town can go to a judge.

“There is evidence that Mr. Gunther was pursuing a personal relationship with” a clerk in his office and she “repeatedly rebuffed” him, according to the “determination after investigation” signed Jan. 27 by Joyce Yearwood-Drury, director of the division’s Office of Sexual Harassment Issues.

Laurie Beth Austin, a senior account clerk typist in Huntington’s Highway Department, filed the complaint July 27.

The state agency conducted an investigation and ruled that the case should be heard by an administrative law judge for a final determination. The hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Austin’s complaint alleges that Gunther once told her she was “ ‘too thickheaded and stupid to know that’ he was the man for her,” according to the agency’s summary of Austin’s complaint.

Gunther, who made $147,332 in 2015, did not return calls seeking comment, but had denied the allegations during the agency’s investigation. Gunther, an elected, not appointed highway superintendent, took office in 2014 and faces re-election this year.

He told state officials that “he sought to counsel her through some financial and personal issues and regrets if his concern was misconstrued,” according to the division report.

Austin provided the state with recorded conversations she had with Gunther, in which she “is heard expressing how disturbed and uncomfortable she is to be in the situation. It cannot be said that Mr. Gunther’s actions had no harm,” Yearwood-Drury wrote.

In one conversation, Austin told Gunther, “I know how you feel about me and I know you want more, . . . It can’t happen.”

“I’m here to do a job,” she continued. “I said no . . . no, you’re my boss, no, you’re married, always no,” according to the document.

Austin, who made $79,840 in 2015, has worked for the town’s Highway Department since 1990 and remains employed there. Shortly after Gunther took office in January 2014, Austin applied for and became his confidential secretary, according to the document.

In that role, Austin often had to ride alone with Gunther in his car. She claimed he used the occasions to try to hold her hand, or park on dead-end roads and try to kiss her — in one instance, leading to Austin jumping out of the car, crying, according to the investigation documents.

Huntington Town spokesman A.J. Carter did not comment on the state ruling, but said the document was under review.

The division’s report found town officials took “prompt action” on Austin’s behalf, and cautioned Gunther to stay away from her. Gunther told the division he had complied.

Austin also told investigators Gunther made comments about her appearance, asked her to meet him on nights and weekends, and told others in the workplace she was “his girl,” according to the complaint.

“He created this atmosphere that led people to believe there was some kind of relationship, which was false,” said Christopher Cassar, a Huntington attorney representing Austin. “It created a hostile work environment. Co-employees were resentful.”

Austin did not want to comment on the ruling, Cassar said.

The tension eventually led Austin to request, and be granted, a move to work out of a highway department equipment garage in Elwood, Cassar said.

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