Prosecution rests in suspended Delaware County official's hearing

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Frank Miller, who is representing Delaware County in its disciplinary proceedings against Social Services Commissioner Dana Scuderi-Hunter, consults with Linda Pinner, the county’s personnel officer, after testimony Tuesday at the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi.

DELHI — The prosecution rested its case Tuesday on the fifth day of disciplinary proceedings against Dana Scuderi-Hunter, commissioner of the Delaware County Department of Social Services.

Ronald Dunn, attorney for the defense, wrapped up his cross-examination of County Attorney Amy Merklen, who was the sole witness to take the stand at the previous session of the hearing.

Of the 11 different lines of questioning Dunn attempted to initiate with Merklen, five were blocked by hearing officer Alfred Riccio, at the request of prosecutor Frank Miller.

When Miller asked Merklen about a September 2018 meeting with Scuderi-Hunter and Tina Molé, Bovina town supervisor and chair of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, she said the meeting was demanded by Scuderi-Hunter, who claimed there was miscommunication between her department and the county attorney’s office.

“I did not feel that there was miscommunication,” Merklen said. “We worked together. It was a professional relationship and that’s what it was.”

She testified that throughout her 13 years working for the county attorney’s office, there was “a constant flow of information” between her office and the social services department until Scuderi-Hunter took office in 2015, at which point communications “took a nosedive.”

Merklen characterized the relationship as one lacking in communication rather than one of miscommunication, claiming that social services employees were forbidden from speaking to representatives of the county attorney’s office.

‘SECRET COMPLAINTS’

Linda Pinner, the county personnel officer, was the final witness called by the prosecution. Unlike other witnesses, with the exception of Molé, Pinner was not sequestered from the proceedings and was present during the testimony of each of the other 10 witnesses.

Pinner testified that she received complaints from several employees, though she refused to identify the complainants both in private conversations with Scuderi-Hunter — as a matter of confidentiality, she said — and throughout her testimony, despite Dunn’s repeated requests for her to elaborate on the nature of the complaints.

“Absent the specifics, my client can’t be disciplined,” Dunn said, claiming unfairness in her being “confronted with secret complaints.”

Scuderi-Hunter was accused of belittling employees in front of others, “calling them on the carpet” for their professional opinions and raising her voice in anger, Pinner said, and many of the employees feared retaliation for coming forward.

After Miller rested his case, Dunn motioned to dismiss the fifth charge of the seven included as evidence, which still have not been made public.

Addressing three subsections of the charge, Dunn argued that “there was no testimony of any kind” that Scuderi-Hunter disregarded suggestions for certain mental health treatment of an unnamed client of the department and resident of the women’s homeless shelter in Delhi when she severely cut herself in February 2018.

Dunn also argued that the case concerning Child No. 4, whose history with the department began in December 2014 and involved some controversy surrounding a pediatrician’s prescription of Lexapro the following year, was beyond the 18-month statute of limitations in civil service disciplinary proceedings.

Miller objected, contending there was extensive testimony to support the charge. Riccio moved to reserve judgment on the motion and make a determination when writing his final recommendation at the hearing’s close.

Pinner criticized Scuderi-Hunter for internally handling the discipline of a social services employee who was allegedly drinking on the job. The alleged incident occurred Feb. 27, 2016, Pinner said, though she was not made aware until March 6, and only then “through the rumor mill.”

Without her knowledge or authorization, Pinner said, Scuderi-Hunter authorized the demotion of the unnamed employee, referred to only as “DSS Employee No. 1.” She testified that such matters are typically handled through her office, though under cross-examination she admitted that Scuderi-Hunter’s job description grants her “complete control” over matters of personnel.

Dunn elicited further testimony from Pinner that the demotion was initiated at the request of the employee, and that Scuderi-Hunter’s granting of the request was not at all improper.

Miller introduced as evidence a spreadsheet compiled by Pinner documenting what he described as the attrition rate of the social services department. The data, based on payroll accounts, tallied the number of employees who left the department each year from 2012 until September 2019 by reason of resignation, removal or retirement.

“I just got totals,” Pinner said, testifying under cross-examination that the data did not address specific reasons for departure.

Four employees resigned in 2012, according to Pinner’s data; 12 resigned in 2013 and five each resigned in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, one year after Scuderi-Hunter was appointed commissioner, 13 people resigned, Pinner testified; 14 resigned in 2017, 13 in 2018 and six people have resigned to date in 2019.

WITNESS DISPUTE

Miller objected to testimony by Patricia Tyrell, staff development coordinator for the department of social services, on the grounds that she was present for the first two days of proceedings, which he claimed to be in “direct violation of the sequestration order.”

Dunn contended that he had “no contemplation” of calling her as a witness at that time, noting that Riccio’s sequestration order applied only to known witnesses.

“She knows exactly why people leave,” he said, referring to the department’s attrition rate.

Tyrell testified that she offers a voluntary exit interview to each employee leaving the department to discuss specific reasons for departure, including organizational and supervisory factors, as well as general ones such as hours and benefits.

“But we have no basis to contest it,” Riccio interjected, seemingly speaking on behalf of the prosecution.

A longitudinal study of survey responses indicated that employees were most likely to leave the department because of job dissatisfaction or to take another job offer, Tyrell said. Her study also found an increased rate of satisfaction with supervisors and overall department function, she said. She noted that Scuderi-Hunter was never specifically cited as a reason for any employee’s departure.

Riccio also asserted that Tyrell’s account of Scuderi-Hunter’s management style was “not germane” to his understanding of the case, despite the fact that James Eisel, Harpersfield town supervisor and former board chair, offered previous testimony criticizing Scuderi-Hunter’s management style, and Miller contended in his opening statement that she “embarked upon a campaign of very difficult and indeed, egregious behavior directed at subordinate employees.”

“She is the strongest and smartest woman that I know, and she works 24/7 like a machine,” Tyrell said of Scuderi-Hunter. “I have a hard time understanding how any person could quite possibly work like that and care so much and care about everybody else.

“Through her leadership, her support and her vision, I have had the most success of my career to date,” Tyrell continued. “It was all within me, but it was through her vision and her support that I could do that.”

The hearing is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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