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Huntington highway chief says he offered comfort, not harassment

Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther, seen here on

Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther, seen here on July 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther testified in a public hearing Thursday that he had no romantic interest in an employee who filed a New York State Division of Human Rights sexual harassment claim against him.

The testimony came during the second day of a two-day hearing before New York State Division of Human Rights Administrative Law Judge Margaret Jackson in Hempstead.

Laurie Beth Austin, a senior account clerk typist in the highway department, filed a complaint with the division against Gunther and the town on July 27, 2016. A division investigation found Gunther had pursued a personal relationship with Austin despite her insisting on having only a professional relationship with him. Division officials in January ruled the complaint could be heard by a judge.

Austin testified Wednesday that from mid-2014 to June 2016, she felt sexually harassed by Gunther because of his unwanted kisses, hugs, gifts and forced car rides during the work day. His actions caused her to feel anxious and helpless, to lose weight and to have insomnia, she said.

Gunther denied the allegations Thursday.

When asked by his attorney, Manhattan-based Michael T. Cornacchia, if he sexually harassed Austin or tried to kiss her, Gunther said, “No, sir” to each question. He answered “absolutely not” to questions about forcing her against her will to go on car rides during the business day and, when asked if had tried to hold hands with her, said “I never did that.”

Gunther said taking rides during the work day to assist him and serve as a witness were part of Austin’s job duties as his confidential secretary. Austin has worked directly for Gunther since 2014 and became his confidential secretary in 2016. The job title came with a $12,000 stipend, which Austin still collects despite no longer serving in that capacity.

Gunther acknowledged sending Austin a Valentine’s Day card in which he asked her to “be his Valentine” and another card, which included a handwritten note that she was a “good looking woman” and that he hoped one day she could “look into my eyes and mean it.”

“I care about her and her family; she had many things going on with her life,” Gunther testified.

Text messages Austin testified were sent from Gunther asking for hugs were not directed at her, Gunther said, but were sent in general after a long or frustrating day and that he was thinking about his wife.

He said any comments he made to her, such as complimenting the smell of her hand cream, were made without romantic intentions, but added she asked him to stop making her feel “uncomfortable.”

Christopher Cassar, Austin’s attorney, said he thought Gunther’s testimony was inconsistent and not credible.

“He denied his desire to have a romantic relationship with Miss Austin and it’s inconsistent with the text messages, the love cards, the letter,” he said.

Cornacchia said he believed “that after the court considers all the evidence, that Mr. Gunther will be vindicated and it will be found that he did not engage in sexual harassment and Ms. Austin suffered no damages.”

The only other witness to testify in the case was Town Personnel Officer Lisa Baisley. Under questioning from Northport-based attorney Jim Clark, who is representing the town, she said the number of hours Austin took off during the period in question translated to about 67 days, including time off around holidays.

Austin testified Wednesday that Gunther’s advances led her to call in sick more than 100 days in three and a half years — mostly due to the stress Gunther was causing her.

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