A Huntington Highway Department employee testified for more than four hours Wednesday at a New York State Division of Human Rights hearing on her sexual harassment complaint she filed against her boss — town Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther.
Laurie Beth Austin, a senior account clerk typist in the department, testified, at times through tears, about what she called Gunther’s unwanted attention, which included kisses, hugs and car rides. His actions, she said, caused her to feel anxious and helpless, to lose weight and to have insomnia. Gunther’s advances led her to call in sick more than 100 days in three and a half years — mostly due to the stress, she said.
She said she finally felt so depressed while aiding a homeless dog that she sought the help of her union.
“I realized I wasn’t even trying to save myself,” Austin testified.
She said the harassment spanned from mid-2014 until she was transferred to another spot in the highway department at her request by town officials in July 2016.
Austin filed the complaint July 27, 2016.
According to a division investigation, Gunther had pursued a personal relationship with Austin despite her insisting on having only a professional relationship with him.
The division’s report found town officials took “prompt action” on Austin’s behalf, but in January division officials ruled that the complaint could go to a judge.
Gunther denied the allegations during the agency’s investigation.
The two-day hearing is before New York State Division of Human Rights Administrative Law Judge Margaret Jackson in Hempstead.
Austin has worked for the town’s highway department since 1990 and remains employed there. Shortly after Gunther took office, in January 2014, Austin began working for him and in January 2016 became his confidential secretary. The position came with a $12,000-a-year stipend on top of her regular salary.
For the hearing, Austin provided recorded conversations she had with Gunther, text message exchanges she said were between them and greeting cards signed “Love, Pete.”
Manhattan-based attorney Michael Cornacchia, who represents Gunther, and East Northport-based attorney Jim Clark who is representing the town, questioned the validity of statements Austin made in her human rights complaint and testimony given earlier Wednesday.
The attorneys pointed out that she was dealing with problems before and during the time that she worked for Gunther, including chronic illness and dealing with a mentally ill sister.
Cornacchia said Austin benefited economically from the relationship because Gunther gave part-time jobs to her daughter and brother and he helped her deal with family problems, which Austin acknowledged.
Christopher Cassar, Austin’s attorney, said his client was seeking monetary relief and better working conditions.
“Her testimony was consistent and powerful in the sense it was emotional,” Cassar said. “The other attorneys did not attack her underlying claims she was sexually attacked.”
Cornacchia, Gunther’s attorney, declined to comment after the hearing.
Gunther will be questioned Thursday when the hearing resumes.