LITTLE VALLEY — Cattaraugus County lawmakers voted Wednesday to refer the findings of an investigation of alleged misconduct involving two former county officials to the New York State Attorney General’s Office.
The vote came following a two-hour, 45-minute executive session with an attorney from Harris Beach, a Rochester law firm county legislators hired in February to investigate two sexual harassment complaints filed against former county attorney Eric Firkel.
Firkel resigned his county attorney post on Feb. 25, in order to run for county legislature in District 7, a day before Harris Beach attorney Karlee Bolanos delivered a report on an initial investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment.
A press release issued after the closed-door legislative session Wednesday and drafted by Bolanos, stated: “During the course of the investigation additional information and evidence surfaced, both related to the original harassment complaints as well as other possible misconduct unrelated to the original harassment complaints and involving Eric Firkel and the former Republican Election Commissioner Michael Brisky.”
Firkel and Brisky are both running for County Legislature in the November election. Both said Wednesday they are innocent of all allegations, with statements on their behalf calling the investigation a “political hack job.”
The bipartisan legislative statement added: “Our attorneys recommended that certain matters be immediately referred to the New York State Attorney General’s Office as soon as possible for further review and investigation.”
The statement continued: “The Cattaraugus County Legislature members present at the executive session fully support the referral because it was determined that such a referral is in the best interests of the County and its valued employees. Many employees came forward during the course of the investigation to share information and concerns.”
At the request of the Democratic caucus, county lawmakers surrendered their cellphones during the executive session.
Legislator Norman Marsh, R-Little Valley, excused himself from the executive session because Firkel represented him in a recent state Supreme Court case.
Another legislator, Andrew Burr, R-Gowanda, abstained from voting on the resolution to refer the investigation to the state Attorney General’s Office on the advice of Bolanos. He said it was “because of a situation you are all aware of.”
Burr declined to elaborate after the meeting, but he is close to both Firkel and Brisky. Burr is vice chairman of the Cattaraugus County Republican Committee and both Firkel and Brisky sit on the Executive Committee.
Legislators Dan Hale, R-Portville, and Richard Klancer, R-Gowanda, were absent from the meeting.
Besides Hale, Klancer, Marsh and Burr, the remaining county lawmakers joined in co-sponsoring the resolution.
Legislators refused to discuss anything that was discussed during the executive session.
Bolanos said she had lawmakers sign a non-disclosure statement before the session.
County Legislature Chairman James J. Snyder, R-Olean, arranged for a brief press conference with Bolanos to explain the investigation.
“My firm will make the referral to the Attorney General’s Office,” she said.
“The Legislature felt strongly that they needed to make a bipartisan statement so there is transparency in what is happening and that they are supportive of the employees.”
Bolano said the investigation was sparked by two complaints of sexual harassment by Firkel that were filed Feb. 19 and 22. “That’s what started the investigation.”
Bolanos did not describe what other possible misconduct Firkel and Brisky were accused of.
“The County takes sexual harassment very seriously and will not tolerate harassment or retaliation of its employees,” the press release stated.
“Now more than ever the County Legislature and the County Administration feel it is critical to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and swiftly and compassionately respond when employees report complaints.”
Barry Covert, an attorney representing Firkel, told the Olean Times Herald late Wednesday that the investigation was “a political hack job,” and referral to the Attorney General’s Office was “meaningless.”
Covert said he was retained to conduct an investigation into “harassment Eric and Mike have been getting from certain county legislators and the law firm hired to conduct this political hack job.”
He added Wednesday’s press release was “intended to undermine their efforts to run for County Legislature.”
Covert said he found communications from Bolanos to Firkel and Brisky to be “inappropriate” and that she “conducted an extra-judicial investigation into matters not in her purview.”
He also said that as county attorney Firkel had hired Harris Beach for a county matter then terminated them shortly afterward, giving the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Brisky issued a statement late Wednesday saying: “I deny any wrongdoing. I am proud of my accomplishments. This is a sad and pitiful attempt and a political hack job by cowardly opponents that simply can not challenge on the battlefield of ideas and policy.”
Firkel issued the following statement about 9 p.m. Wednesday:
“During my tenure as the county attorney, and at no time prior to or after my resignation, did I harass any county employee or any other person. This investigation has been a political witch hunt from its conception. In the two months since the so-called “investigator” was hired by Cattaraugus County, I have never been interviewed by her despite the fact that I informed her I would make myself available at her convenience; in fact, I would not be able to tell you what the investigator looks like.
“The investigator’s firm, Harris Beach, is the same firm that I hired just last year as county attorney and then quickly fired for excessive billing. Hiring a firm that I fired just a year ago tainted this so-called investigation from the start.
“This sham investigation would not be happening if I were not a candidate for the county legislature. It’s a waste of time and an even bigger waste of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. I resigned my position to run for the legislature prior to the investigation.
“This kind of witch hunt is the calling card of Jim Snyder, Joe Snyder, Dan Hale and Sue Labuhn. False accusations have been spread and I’ve been threatened by Joe Snyder to get out of the race.
“Most alarmingly, county tax dollars have been used to fund a smear campaign. After all, it would be difficult for Joe Snyder and Dan Hale to run on their record, given that they have voted seven times in seven consecutive years to raise taxes and their district has absolutely nothing to show for it.”