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Huntington official’s state sex harassment hearing May 8-9

Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther is shown in

Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther is shown in this Dec. 11, 2014 file photo. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

A New York State Division of Human Rights public hearing has been set to hear testimony in a sexual harassment complaint filed against Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther.

In January the division ruled that the complaint filed against Gunther and the town by Laurie Beth Austin, a senior account clerk typist in Huntington’s Highway Department, could go to a judge.

The hearing is set for May 8 and 9 before New York State Division of Human Rights Administrative Law Judge Robert M. Vespoli in Hauppauge.

After an investigation, the division found “evidence that Mr. Gunther was pursuing a personal relationship with” Austin despite her insisting on only a professional relationship with him, according to the “determination after investigation” signed Jan. 27 by Joyce Yearwood-Drury, director of the division’s Office of Sexual Harassment Issues.

Austin filed the complaint July 27.

Gunther could not be reached for comment. He denied the allegations during the agency’s investigation. He was elected in 2013 and faces re-election this year.

“We feel that the evidence supporting her claim is very strong and we intend to establish the claim at the hearing,” said Christopher Cassar, Austin’s attorney, in an interview.

Cassar said his client is seeking monetary relief and “improved working conditions.”

Huntington Town spokesman A.J. Carter said East Northport-based attorney Jim Clark will represent the town in the proceeding.

“The town is not paying for Mr. Gunther’s attorney,” Carter said.

Austin 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. The position came with a $12,000-a-year stipend on top of her regular salary.

Austin provided the state with recorded conversations she said she had with Gunther, expressing how “uncomfortable” she was with his behavior, and Valentine’s Day cards signed “Love, Pete.” She also said that he asked her to meet him on nights and weekends, according to the division report.

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.

She eventually asked to be reassigned to another highway office and town officials obliged.

The division’s report found town officials took “prompt action” on Austin’s behalf.

The report says Gunther told state officials that “he sought to counsel her through some financial and personal issues and regrets if his concern was misconstrued.”

Gunther said in the report that long hours working together were part of the job and that he customarily kissed female employees on the cheeks for holidays and birthdays. He said he also gave gifts to male and female employees on those occasions.

In the report he said that at Austin’s request, he hired a qualified member of her family to work part time in the department and another for a six-month position.

The two-day hearing starts at 9 a.m. at the State Office Building, 250 Veterans Memorial Hwy.

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