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April Weedsport village board

The Weedsport Village Board meets April 11. From left are Village Clerk Jeannine Powers, trustee Chris Lukins, trustee Harry Hinman, Mayor Jean Saroodis, trustee Chere Perkins and trustee Steve Sims.

Carson DiRisio said she was nervous to drive to work every day.

In December, DiRisio — a village of Weedsport public works employee — filed a workplace violence and harassment complaint against her boss, who also is the mayor's son. The filing of the complaint with the village's harassment committee led the municipality to hire the Bond, Schoeneck & King law firm to conduct a third-party investigation. More than four months later, the Weedsport Board of Trustees accepted "a voluntary separation and resignation agreement" with Department of Public Works Superintendent James Saroodis, a decision that ended his paid administrative leave put in place in February.

DiRisio, 21, said she filed the complaint because James was creating a hostile and unsafe work environment, and was "being very abusive towards me."

James declined to speak publicly about the matter, but his wife, Cheryl Saroodis, and his attorney have both defended him by saying that the allegations are not true and not proven.

DiRisio said she was unsure how to handle the situation, so she asked "low-key" questions that led her to become aware of the village's harassment committee.

When she was hired for a motor equipment operator position at the end of July, working as a probationary laborer until she could obtain her commercial driver's license to become a permanent employee, the job started off OK, DiRisio said.

Problems began to arise in September, DiRisio said, but at first it was "small" and "sporadic" stuff. Then James became more persistent, she said.

"It started with comments and then it turned into more of the physical. ... Everything just progressively got worse," DiRisio said.

DiRisio said that in December James thrust his body against her and rubbed the back of her neck. This acted as a "tipping point," and she created a four-page write-up detailing his alleged harassment, which she later disclosed to The Citizen, and included it with the harassment complaint she filed against James the first day he was out of the office for his Christmas vacation.

The complaint form asked DiRisio the type of action she was seeking to resolve the situation. She said she wrote the termination of James' employment, and later orally informed the village and attorneys that she would also be OK with James taking an early retirement.

"To me that's pretty laid back for ... the circumstances," DiRisio said. She added that at first she "felt like a horrible person taking someone's job," but she then realized James did something "terrible" and "he thinks it's OK."

The complaint DiRisio filed outlined a combination of various forms of physical and verbal abuse, as well as inappropriate verbal innuendos and sexual harassment.

The complaint

DiRisio indicated in her complaint that sometimes while working on something, James would come by and "brush his body up against me." Her "tipping point" was when James walked up behind her while she was standing at a tool chest and kicked her in the butt, only then to proceed by using his body to push her into the tool box. Minutes later, he came back to grab a tape measure and used the end of it to slowly "caress the back and side of my neck," DiRisio said in the complaint.

"It was creepy ... he did that and I literally went home crying. And I was like, I can't deal with this anymore," DiRisio said.

On multiple occasions James hit DiRisio, "with an open hand in the face, or hit me with whatever he has in his hand. ... A couple of times when he has done this, he has hit me with enough force that it gives me a headache. When I tell him it hurts, he laughs at me and tells me to 'suck it up' and 'stop being such a girl,'" DiRisio's complaint states.

One of the "most terrifying experiences," DiRisio said, were times she'd be working in the shop and James would stand close behind her with a lighter and an aerosol can of cleaner "and spray a giant flame at me ... close enough to where my hair or clothes could catch on fire." When asked to stop, "he laughs and continues to do it," she wrote in her complaint.

James would also incessantly make comments insinuating that DiRisio was "being intimate or having sexual relations with" her coworkers while on the job, the report states. One time, when DiRisio was walking out of the shop with a male coworker to do some painting at the firehouse, James told her "don't use the ambulance, use the beds upstairs," insinuating that they would be having sex. Another time, while DiRisio was practicing driving a manual-shift village vehicle with the help of a coworker, James asked her which "stick" she was using to shift gears.

DiRisio said she would try her best to not look bothered when James would harass her so as to not encourage his actions. But sometimes when it became obvious she was bothered or stressed, James would repeatedly ask her "so are you ready to quit yet?" until she would reply, "no," to which he'd "throw his hands in the air, huffing and puffing, and say 'seriously, not yet?'" she wrote in the complaint.

"On a daily basis I am scared to go to work because of what he might say or do to me. ... His touching and comments have become worse. I fear for my safety at all times when (James) is present," DiRisio wrote.

DiRisio said it was "unfortunate because he is the only one that is doing any of this," and for everyone in the DPW "it was always a tense environment."

The investigation

After the complaint was submitted to the harassment committee, at the time made up of Village Clerk Jeannine Powers and Weedsport Police Department Officer in Charge Greg Gilfus, the committee brought the report to then-Deputy Mayor Chris Lukins to handle, DiRisio said.

On May 2, Powers said she "can't comment" on the claim or how it was handled in the village. Gilfus also said "I'm not going to comment on it," but added that "everything was turned over immediately."

Once Lukins had the complaint, DiRisio said, he told her he would take action but it might take some time since he wanted to make sure everything was handled appropriately. Several weeks later, Lukins would be stripped of his deputy mayor title at the recommendation of Mayor Jean Saroodis, James' mother.

"(Lukins) followed everything by the book, black and white," DiRisio said, adding that it was "just a personal decision by (Mayor Jean Saroodis) to demote Chris," when Mayor Saroodis announced he would no longer be the village's deputy mayor. "She feels untouchable," DiRisio said of the mayor.

Lukins provided a written statement about the situation.

"With the complaint being filed, any actions or decisions I've made have been based upon direction from legal counsel." Lukins said in a statement provided to The Citizen on May 3. "I've kept the interest of the residents, taxpayers and employees as a whole in mind throughout this."

The Syracuse-based Bond, Schoeneck & King law firm first entered the scene for the village on Dec. 15 — three days after DiRisio's "tipping point" incident.

Attorney bills indicate the first action included attorney John Callahan conferring with village attorney David Thurston "regarding investigation of ... claim filed by village employee." Callahan then examined the complaint and investigated the background of the complainant on that same day.

Thurston said in an email on May 3 that he "cannot offer a comment at this time," as to how the claim was handled or what prompted the involvement of the third-party law firm. Weedsport has since paid the firm over $29,000 for legal services for the months of December through April.

Attorney invoices indicate Bond, Schoeneck, & King's Caroline Westover began working on the "internal investigation" on Dec. 27.

Westover interviewed DiRisio, people she listed as witnesses, as well as James once he was back from his Christmas vacation, DiRisio said. During the investigation, DiRisio said she was informed that she has rights, but James does too, and that the attorneys could "only share so much information."

Upon the conclusion of the investigation, DiRisio said she was not notified of any results, and didn't hear from an attorney or the village board about what the process would look like moving forward. Her understanding at that point was that the situation was in the hands of the board, she said.

DiRisio was told she and James could not be in contact during the investigation period. Then, to her complete surprise one day — while having lunch with three coworkers — James walked into the office.

"My heart like sank and I was like sitting there and didn't know what to do ... he walked up and looked into the room and just turned and went into his office," DiRisio said. "I called (Lukins) and (Westover) the day that Jimmy came back to work and I was like 'what the heck, why am I working with him again?' And they said that ... basically like he kind of had to be there to do his job. ... I didn't think he would even be coming back to work.

"My understanding is that he was there for administrative purposes, and that was not the case at all," DiRisio said. She elaborated, saying that during some water main breaks in January, James would "come up and work right along (me) ... It was almost like he made himself part of the job even though he knew he couldn't."

Eventually, though, James would be prohibited from the workplace.

Attorney bills indicate that that the investigation report was finalized by Westover on Feb. 7. A special meeting was called in the village on Feb. 8 with attorney Colin Leonard, which resulted in James being placed on paid leave commencing Feb. 9, meeting minutes indicate. Minutes also say Mayor Saroodis defied Leonard's advice by refusing to recuse herself from the matter due to the conflict of interest.

The resolution

Mayor Saroodis again clashed with the law firm in March by claiming there was a conflict of interest between the firm and the village. She had stated during a meeting that one of the firm's lawyers, Westover, also served on the board of Cayuga Community College, where Lukins worked part-time. That claim temporarily derailed a vote by the village board to prohibit the mayor from being involved in the matter.

The mayor's claim, though, was wrong. Westover was not on the college board of trustees, but was rather a member of the private foundation that provides fundraising support to the college. Once the mayor's conflict of interest allegation against the firm was debunked, the rest of the board precluded her from all discussions involving the public works superintendent.

Then in a regular meeting on April 11, Mayor Saroodis called an executive session near the end of the meeting which resulted in a vote to not extend DiRisio's probationary employment period within the village. On April 12, DiRisio was told her last day with the village would be April 25 due to not obtaining her commercial driver's license. A few days later, the resolution was rescinded and DiRisio's probation was extended to May 10 during a special meeting on a Sunday morning in which the mayor exited the executive session early, audibly cursing at the trustees on her way out of the village office.

The village has denied The Citizen's FOIL requests to obtain the attorney's investigation report, asserting that the records are "privileged as both attorney-client and attorney work-product material."

Executive Director of the state Committee on Open Government Robert Freeman explained that if the report contains substantiated allegations, that withholding the records would violate numerous court-set precedents supporting the release of the document.

In an advisory opinion to The Citizen, Assistant Director of COOG Kristin O'Neill said that she conjectures "the report in question includes not only legal advice or opinions, but also factual information that must be disclosed." She later added that the village's denial of the records did not comply with FOIL's statutory requirement to "fully explain in writing" the reason for denial.

The Saroodis family, meanwhile, is defending James.

Cheryl Saroodis, James' wife, said on May 3 that because James is "honoring the agreement the village signed," he cannot speak with The Citizen. She added that the allegations "are totally false" and "we were told they were unfounded" by a Bond, Schoeneck & King attorney.

Attorney Richard Graham, representing James, also said that the Saroodises assert the allegations "are not true." He said he has not seen the Bond, Schoeneck & King investigation report, but said no formal charges were brought against James and he has denied all of the allegations. "He decided to resign of his own volition," Graham said.

Village officials would not confirm to The Citizen whether or not the allegations have been substantiated, and have thus far also withheld the content of the "voluntary separation and resignation agreement" executed with James.

DiRisio provided The Citizen with a letter she received from the village on Saturday, signed by Perkins, that provided a general overview of the investigation.

"The village's investigation into your complaint resulted in a conclusion that certain of your allegations could be substantiated, some could not be substantiated and others could be partially substantiated," the letter stated. "In connection with the village's investigation, Mr. Saroodis was relieved of all supervisory authority with regard to your work and thereafter was placed on paid administrative leave. Finally, he is no longer employed by the village."

The letter did not get into any conclusions about specific charges, and village officials have generally not been willing to discuss the case.

The Citizen reached out to the full board of trustees. Trustee Steve Sims said he could not comment on the matter. Lukins said he also cannot comment, beyond his written statement regarding his role in the matter, on the issue or on the contents of the report. Trustee Harry Hinman said he had no comment, including on how the mayor handled the situation, but said of the trustees, "I think we handled it very well." Deputy mayor Chere Perkins could not be reached for comment.

One person who did see the resignation agreement between the village and James Saroodis was Mayor Jean Saroodis, who spoke about the matter to The Citizen on May 3. She said the village office wouldn't give her a copy, so James gave it to her.

Mayor Saroodis said the allegations "are unfounded, that's what's in the separation agreement."

"If any man did what (DiRisio) claims, it's an arrest-able offense," Cheryl said in an email. "My husband (chose) to resign and not go back to work for the village as he doesn’t feel safe there with Carson."

Graham also said in an email that some of the allegations against James are potentially criminal acts, and "have never been proven, and are unfounded." He said if such allegations had merit, the village would have never allowed James to return to work.

Gilfus, the leader of the village police department, declined to comment on the potential criminal nature of the accusations and what would need to take place in order for criminal charges to be considered.

"What appears to me is (DiRisio) has an ax to grind," Graham said over the phone. "She wants to be the victim and get all the attention."

DiRisio denies that claim.

"I know what I went through, I know what happened," DiRisio said. "If it was unfounded, how (was the village) even able to do a separation agreement?" she asked. She added that the village would have fired her, not separated with James, if the allegations were unfounded.

DiRisio, who chose to keep her story private until the village temporarily fired her on April 12, said she's "definitely not trying to get attention.

"I didn't do something for myself, I did it for the whole village," DiRisio said. "I just want justice and I think that it's right that the taxpayers know what is happening with their tax money, and what is happening with their village.

"My main concern is for people to know who is in charge of their village," DiRisio said, adding that "people should (know) ... the mayor is corrupt," and that "something needs to be done about the mayor's actions."

When The Citizen asked Mayor Saroodis to describe how she thinks she handled the situation, she asserted that she recused herself. "My opinion is that it was handled wrong" by the trustees, she said, adding "this should have been taken care of in a week."

DiRisio received her commercial driver's license on May 3, and was hired as a full-time motor equipment operator in the village's DPW on Thursday — making her the first woman to be employed full-time in the DPW.

Staff writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or megan.ehrhart@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.

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Towns Reporter