Suspended Delaware official begins hearing

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Delaware County Social Services Commissioner Dana Scuderi-Hunter, consults with her attorney, Ronald Dunn of Albany, at her disciplinary hearing Wednesday at the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi.

DELHI — A hearing on disciplinary charges filed by Delaware County against its commissioner of social services commenced Wednesday at the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi.

The Delaware County Board of Supervisors last month approved the formal suspension of Social Services Commissioner Dana Scuderi-Hunter, who was placed on paid administrative leave in July.

Tina Molé, Bovina town supervisor and chair of the board, said on the witness stand that the initial decision to suspend Scuderi-Hunter was made internally, voted on in executive session. No record of such a decision appears in any posted board meeting minutes until charges were formally filed last month.* 

Unlike most court proceedings, the hearing did not begin with a statement of charges — in fact, the charges were never read at all, and the court hearing officer declined to share them publicly, leaving members of the audience guessing as to what they are.

The multipurpose room was assembled into a makeshift courtroom, with the hearing officer and court reporter seated at the head of the room, the witness stand at the center and the attorneys and their clients on either side: Frank W. Miller of East Syracuse representing Delaware County, and Ronald Dunn of Albany representing Scuderi-Hunter.

Alfred T. Riccio, a lawyer practicing in Clifton Park, was appointed to serve as hearing officer by the county in the same resolution that formalized Scuderi-Hunter’s suspension and served charges against her.

Under New York Civil Service Law, the hearing officer is charged with submitting a record of the hearing — in this case, one prepared by a representative of appointed stenography service Veritext Court Reporting — along with his recommendations on the matter to the county for review and final decision, meaning that the board, or Bovina Town Supervisor Tina Molé as chair, maintains exclusive rule over the outcome of the hearing, regardless of the hearing officer’s recommendations.

Riccio sequestered from the hearing all witnesses other than the parties, dismissing James Eisel, Harpersfield town supervisor, and Angela Barnes, a former caseworker with the Department of Social Services.

Riccio admitted as evidence a document detailing seven charges against Scuderi-Hunter, which Miller said in his opening statement contained “very serious allegations,” the first of which accused Scuderi-Hunter of engaging in conduct “unbecoming of an employee of Delaware County.”

“Embedded in the job description of the respondent is a requirement that the respondent be able to work well with other staff members and other agencies within the county, as well as outside the county,” Miller said, a requirement which he argued Scuderi-Hunter “egregiously violated.”

Miller contended that evidence and testimony would show Scuderi-Hunter “embarked upon a campaign of very difficult and indeed, egregious behavior directed at subordinate employees and other department heads” from the time she took office.

“Throughout the course of the ensuing four years, the respondent has engaged in repeated acts that can only be described as dictatorial, aggressive, abusive, and extreme conduct in excess of her lawful authority,” Miller continued.

Scuderi-Hunter herself did not speak on her own behalf or take the stand, communicating only through written notes made to her attorney.

Dunn, in his opening statement, argued that the duties of the position may “cause the commissioner to take positions which are uncomfortable to other department heads,” adding “she’s very proud of her record in that regard.”

“She’s done a fabulous job for employees of social services, a fabulous job protecting the interests of the taxpayers and a fabulous job of making difficult choices to serve her clients,” he said, promising testimony that department morale is “sky-high” in Scuderi-Hunter’s fifth year as commissioner.

“This case really boils down to a fractured relationship between the county attorney’s office and social services,” Dunn continued.

In a letter authored by County Attorney Amy Merklen, which was also submitted as evidence, Dunn said the county attorney “admits to a course of facts that violate a core principle of ethics that all lawyers must follow,” adding that “this case is really about a breach of ethics by the county attorney.”

Withholding names and other personal identifiers, both attorneys made reference to three cases handled by the department during Scuderi-Hunter’s tenure, at least one of which involved her taking a position in opposition to that of the county attorney in a family court proceeding.

The incident was discussed in a June 20 letter Scuderi-Hunter addressed to members of the social services committee in response to three letters she received from Merklen criticizing her actions in court on the unspecified occasion. In the letter, Scuderi-Hunter said she was accused of obstructing and purposely opposing the intent of the offices of county attorney and director of probation, describing the allegations as “blatantly insulting and unsubstantiated.”

Under Delaware County policy, the county attorney is assigned to represent each department in court proceedings, a policy which Dunn argued became problematic when the departments of probation and social services faced off in court regarding a minor in Scuderi-Hunter’s custody as commissioner.

While Merklen, who was absent from the Wednesday hearing, had argued in favor of placing the child in a secure detention facility, Scuderi-Hunter advocated for placement in an in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, a recommendation the presiding judge had ultimately sided with, according to her letter.

“Two clients having differing interests and legal positions is not an uncommon thing,” Dunn said. “That’s why we have a code of professional ethics — a legal obligation that a lawyer cannot represent both interests. The county attorney disobeyed that ethical obligation.”

Molé and Eisel took turns testifying about their experiences with Scuderi-Hunter during their respective tenures as chair of the board; Eisel from 2001 to 2016 and Molé since 2017.

Miller focused his questions on Scuderi-Hunter’s attitude and demeanor, both as Molé and Eisel had experienced for themselves and as was reported to them by other county employees. Both testified that they had received complaints from social services employees and other department heads regarding Scuderi-Hunter’s management style, which they said they addressed with her.

Molé described Scuderi-Hunter’s conduct as “aggressive, abusive, in-your-face, hyper,” noting that she was “always raising her voice” and “easily frustrated,” prompting Scuderi-Hunter to shake her head in apparent disbelief.

“It wasn’t a management style. It was complete control,” Eisel said, testifying that he heard complaints of Scuderi-Hunter belittling social services employees, putting them down and “screaming and carrying on” in her interactions with them.

When questioned by Dunn as to whether any of the employee complaints were filed formally through the county’s formal complaint procedure or through the union’s grievance process — both of which would provide Scuderi-Hunter, as the accused employee, an opportunity to defend herself or respond to the complaints — Molé responded that to her knowledge, there were none.

Barnes, a four-and-a-half-year employee of the social services department, took the stand, tearfully at times describing the events that led to her resignation in June.

She contended her handling of one particular case sparked the ire of Scuderi-Hunter, testifying that she felt threatened at times and was later ordered to hand over all her case notes so the commissioner “could make sure I was doing my job.”

Barnes said she came to work a few days later to find that all her cases had been reassigned, and said she was eventually pulled from her position as an in-house caseworker at Sidney Central School District one week before her resignation took effect, which Barnes said she believed to be in retaliation to her taking action out of line with Scuderi-Hunter’s position.

Dunn prompted her to clarify that the encounter with Scuderi-Hunter was not inherently negative; rather, it was her interpretation of the encounter that was negative.

“My client did absolutely nothing wrong,” Dunn said. “All the other stuff is background noise. It also happens to be untrue.”

The hearing will resume 9:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 20, in the multipurpose room of the Delaware County Public Safety Building in Delhi, and is expected to continue Monday, Sept. 23, and Tuesday, Sept. 24.

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

*changed at 9:28 a.m. Sept. 20 to correct the status of the situation in regard to open meetings law.

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