For Sexual Harassment Witness, The Fallout Has Been ‘Devastating’

By Brendan J. Lyons Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Gina Bianchi says that after she was terminated, she was able to fall back into a junior-level position at DCJS because of Civil Service rules, but she suffered a $44,000-a-year pay cut and lost her senior status.

ALBANY

For Gina Bianchi, the fallout of stepping forward as a witness in a sexual harassment case has been devastating. Financially. Emotionally. Physically.

"This horrible, life-changing incident destroyed my career, and I have suffered a stigma that I am not sure can ever be rectified," Bianchi wrote in testimony submitted this week to a legislative panel examining sexual harassment in the workplace -- including misconduct that occurs in state government offices.

Although Wednesday's hearing at the Capitol -- the first on that topic in more than 25 years -- is focusing largely on the treatment of alleged victims and the byzantine way in which a multitude of agencies and offices probe sexual harassment, there has been little discussion about the problem of retribution against victims, or what can happen to those who may step forward as witnesses.

The six-page written statement submitted to the panel by Bianchi, an attorney who has worked for the state for 25 years, marked her first public comments since being fired from her senior-level job at the Division of Criminal Justice Services in December 2017.

Bianchi was terminated at the direction of DCJS acting Commissioner Michael C. Green, who had interrogated her that day for roughly two hours. Green confronted Bianchi with her confidential testimony to the Inspector General's office, which had investigated allegations that a DCJS supervisor, Brian Gestring, had engaged in years of sexual harassment and workplace violence.

The Inspector General's office, in a letter report to DCJS the day after Bianchi was fired, sustained the allegations against Gestring and advised the agency to take action against several senior-level officials for their mishandling of the case. But DCJS instead claimed it had conducted its own investigation and concluded that Gestring had done nothing wrong.

After she was terminated, Bianchi was able to fall back into a junior-level position at DCJS because of Civil Service rules, but she suffered a $44,000-a-year pay cut and lost her senior status.

She said the loss of income has been "devastating" as one of her children recently graduated from college and another just began college.

"The most ironic thing here is that I lost my job -- despite the fact that I didn't do anything wrong," her testimony states. "What I did was the right thing. I testified truthfully. And, despite what has happened to me, I couldn't in good conscience do anything differently today."

Bianchi has filed a federal lawsuit alleging her civil rights were violated. The state, with the support of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is waging a fierce defense of Green and other government officials, who are all being represented by private attorneys. They contend Bianchi's confidential testimony to the inspector general's office contradicts allegations that she has made in her federal civil complaint; Bianchi and her attorney vehemently dispute those claims.

Kimberly Schiavone, another longtime DCJS employee, has also filed a federal lawsuit accusing top officials there of ignoring her sexual harassment complaints against Gestring and instead punishing her. He lawsuit said she was transferred from her position against her wishes in 2017, and moved from an office with windows into a smaller office that was formerly a storage closet.

Last August, Dani Lever, Cuomo's press secretary, wrote a letter to the Times Union claiming the newspaper's stories on the DCJS case "misrepresented the facts, or blatantly ignored them."

Lever's letter noted that the defendants in Bianchi's federal case -- including Green and Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott -- "filed motions to dismiss citing what they say are blatant falsehoods and legal inaccuracies contained in the suit."

The letter on behalf of the governor's office failed to note that the details of the defendants' arguments have been made largely under seal -- over the objection of Bianchi and her attorney, John W. Bailey.

Lever, whose letter said that "facts matter," also accused the Times Union of inaccurately reporting that Cuomo's chief counsel, Alphonso David, had declined to intervene in the DCJS case after he was privately briefed on the case by Leahy Scott and two top DCJS officials, about a week after Bianchi was fired.

At the time, a spokesman for Cuomo said their office had referred the matter to the Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER), which did not have investigative powers and took no action to undo Bianchi's termination.

GOER has claimed its investigation of the case is ongoing more than a year later. There is, however, little evidence suggesting its work continues. Separately, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics also had been asked to review the case.

Bianchi disputed Lever's account of the handling of the case by the governor's office and the multiple agencies involved in the matter.

"If the facts matter, why weren't Kim, me or the other 10 people who testified in the IG's investigation interviewed by DCJS in its alleged investigation?" Bianchi said in a statement. "Dani Lever is saying don't believe women. Or don't believe victims. Just believe the defendants filing motions to dismiss. ... Why should their motions to dismiss be believed and not what I allege in my complaint? What happened to the governor's assertions to 'believe women?'"

The Times Union editorial board declined to publish Lever's letter last year.

Bailey, Bianchi's attorney, declined to comment, citing the ongoing federal litigation.

Gestring, a former New York Police Department scientist, has denied sexually harassing employees or engaging in other workplace misconduct. He was fired from DCJS last March, for what the agency said was an unrelated complaint involving inappropriate comments made at an off-site training seminar in June 2017. Gestring had been the director of forensic science at DCJS since 2012.

Sources familiar with the allegation that led to Gestring's termination said the incident took place during a DNA training session at the State Police crime laboratory, where Gestring allegedly had made a vulgar remark as the group examined a rape case involving young children. A female State Police scientist filed a complaint about his remark, but the agency took no action.

The Inspector General's investigation of Gestring, outlined in a letter report that was obtained by the Times Union, revealed a history of offensive and inappropriate behavior that began shortly after he started working for DCJS.

State records indicate that about four months after Gestring was hired, he received two counseling memos for misbehavior. Gestring signed the memos certifying that had read them, but added handwritten notes claiming he disagreed with the findings, had been forced to sign them, and that staff at DCJS had "agendas," according to details of the inspector general's investigation shared with the Times Union.

Leahy Scott's investigators, who obtained sworn testimony from multiple DCJS employees, said they were also told that Gestring had once encouraged a female manager to file fraudulent sexual harassment charges against a male colleague in an apparent effort to have him terminated. The woman refused.

Bianchi, in her written testimony, called on the Legislature to demand the release of the Inspector General's report. Although the Times Union has obtained a copy of the report from a confidential source, Bianchi and her attorney said they have never been provided with a copy of the report from the agency. Gestring also said that he never received a copy.

"The Legislature and the governor have long called for independent investigations conducted by independent agencies," she wrote. "In this case, DCJS claimed that after the IG's investigation, DCJS did its own. That is laughable -- and this Legislature should prohibit executive agencies from conducting a 're-do' after an independent IG investigation -- simply because the results of the IG's investigation may cast an agency in a negative light."

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