MONTICELLO, NY — In a May ruling from the New York Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board, former county Health and Family Services commissioner Stephanie Brown won her unemployment …
MONTICELLO, NY — In a May ruling from the New York Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board, former county Health and Family Services commissioner Stephanie Brown won her unemployment benefits.
She was the anonymous county employee who had brought ethics charges against legislator Luis Alvarez. His wife had been a resident at the county-run Care Center at Sunset Lake, and when COVID-19 hit and nursing homes closed, he was unable to visit. There may have been a communications breakdown, and he wasn’t notified when his wife became ill. According to reports, from sometime in 2019, he had repeatedly called and harassed Brown until she went to the county ethics board with a complaint.
The ruling by administrative law judge John Coffey determined that, “The credible evidence establishes that the claimant resigned her employment after the county legislature declined to take action against a legislator whose behavior towards the claimant led her to make an ethics complaint.”
Normally, you aren’t supposed to get unemployment benefits if you quit a job. You have to prove there was sufficient cause for your departure. Normally, this wouldn’t be a story for a newspaper. However, the repercussions of those events have led to a lawsuit, an attempted censure and anger that may underlie what happens with the county legislature.
In 2019, Brown was in charge of the Office for the Aging; by February 2020, she was commissioner of Health and Family Services, and later, she was given responsibility for the nursing home after the director abruptly quit.
Her testimony at the ethics board hearing is not yet public, but in an interview with the Sullivan County Democrat, she said that Alvarez had been calling her for months and that it was escalating and becoming “very aggressive.” She went to county manager Josh Potosek and then-county attorney Cheryl McCausland (who left at the end of 2019) for advice, so the situation had been going on long before the pandemic.
At the ethics board, one charge was dropped, while the other—that he repeatedly harassed her—was determined to be valid.
Alvarez’s penalty was to take anger management classes, but the county legislature chose not to take action.
Coffey found that “the claimant took reasonable steps to preserve her employment by making an ethics complaint and only resigned after the county legislature declined to act on the matter.”
It’s not just about Brown, who left her job. There’s also chairman Rob Doherty, who has strongly supported her, and other legislators who feel that Doherty acted out of line. Commenters have called for him to step down.
The chairman, unilaterally, posted an angry statement on the county website in January, which, among other charges, accused Alvarez of calling Brown a pejorative typically aimed at women.
That particular accusation became a focus for Alvarez’s supporters, who argued that it was never said and implied that Doherty was actually responding to Alvarez’s political stance on issues.
Legislator Nadia Rajsz attempted to censure Doherty because of the statement; it failed when only Alvarez supported her and legislators Nick Salomone, Michael Brooks and Alan Sorensen voted against it.
In a March 10 defamation of character lawsuit, attorney Michael Sussman, representing Alvarez, said that his client “never made any such utterance and never was accused or charged with so doing.”
Again, the testimony at the ethics board hearing was not made public. But going by the unemployment ruling, something was evidently said.
Coffey found that Alvarez “frequently called the claimant after hours and was angry and threatening during those conversations. He would curse at the claimant called her a gender-related pejorative. On other occasions, he yelled at her and pointed his finger.”
There were errors in the ruling (Brown had only been commissioner since February 2020, not since 2015; Alvarez no longer had access to office space in the care center and was no longer the chair), but the overall point was clearly made.
“Based on the foregoing,” Coffey wrote, “I conclude that the claimant had good cause resigned [sic] her employment and that it ended under circumstances that were not disqualified.”
“While it is personally gratifying that the truth has now been able to be brought out, it is truly tragic the county has lost a talented young person who had a very bright future ahead of her,” Doherty wrote in an email. The tragedy, he opined, was compounded by acts of deception that “in this matter and in the process [cost] the county thousands of dollars.”
“Mr. Alvarez was never called as a witness in the workers compensation hearing,” Alvarez’s attorney, Michael Sussman, said. Both Alvarez and Sussman were at the ethics hearing, and the lawyer said that Brown “never made any such claim [regarding a gender-related pejorative].”
Focusing on the January statement on the county website, Sussman said that Doherty “did not answer and would not answer” where he learned that a specific gender-based pejorative was used. “I do not believe that Mr. Alvarez made any such statement.” He continued, “We’re going to continue to litigate…and get to the bottom of this.”