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Jefferson County Sheriff’s guard files $9 million job discrimination suit

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A suspended Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department corrections officer claims in a $9 million federal job discrimination lawsuit that male co-workers sent her unwanted pictures of male genitals and that she was charged with a crime after complaining about alleged disparate treatment between male and female guards.

Janice M. O’Dell, Ellisburg, filed suit Sept. 16 in U.S. District Court, Syracuse, against the county, Sheriff John P. Burns, Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau and retired Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff. The action also names as defendants Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, jail administrator of the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, Robert J. Newtown, a sergeant at the PSB, Francis Seymour, a corrections officer at the PSB, and Michael S. Peterson, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant.

Mrs. O’Dell has been suspended with pay from her position since May 27, 2012, after allegedly being accused by Mr. Burns, Mr. Peterson, Mr. Neff and Mr. Spencer of having “relationships” with inmates both inside and outside the PSB. She subsequently was charged in a grand jury indictment handed up in June 2012 with two counts of first-degree promoting prison contraband and single counts of second-degree promoting prison contraband and official misconduct. It was alleged that she provided an inmate with cigarettes and a lighter sometime in September 2011 and that she provided an inmate with a lighter in April 2011.

On Feb. 22, the two first-degree contraband counts were dismissed in County Court and Mrs. O’Dell was granted one-year adjournments in contemplation of dismissal on the remaining counts, meaning if she stayed out of legal trouble for that period, the charges would be dismissed.

She claims, among other things, that she was denied due process before being reprimanded and that her suspension was retaliation for claims she had brought regarding harassment and discrimination against department members. She contends that in late 2010, Sgt. Newtown, her supervisor, and a corrections officer who was not named as a defendant in the suit asked her to “send them pictures of herself.” When she did not, it is claimed, the two sent her a photograph of a penis, according to the suit.

About a week later, Sgt. Newtown allegedly told Mrs. O’Dell that he might need to reprimand her, “despite there being no cause to do so.” It is claimed in the suit that Sgt. Newtown did so in order to “intimidate” her and prevent her from reporting or complaining about his or others’ alleged conduct. Mrs. O’Dell claims that Sgt. Newtown made references to having a relationship with her and that he made comments about her physical appearance “on occasions too numerous to mention.”

Mrs. O’Dell further maintains that there is a “pervasive environment hostile to African Americans” within the department, as well as a hostility to those who associated with black people. She states that in March 2012 she met an “old college acquaintance,” who was black, at a restaurant and that unidentified members of the department photographed her with the friend. She claims that after this, Mr. Seymour put her “under intense scrutiny,” taking it upon himself to “investigate” Mrs. O’Dell and “report” to Lt. Spencer, “outside of the chain of command and contrary to policy.” She said male employees or employees who were not perceived to associate with black people were not placed under similar scrutiny.

Mrs. O’Dell claims that in the May 2012 meeting with administrators before her suspension, she was told that if she did not resign, “this will be bad for you.” She claims the administrators told her that if she resigned she would “save yourself from embarrassment, save your family from embarrassment.” She argues that the request for her resignation was made without union representation present and without any opportunity to deny the accusations.

In her 29-page lawsuit, Mrs. O’Dell claims that department administrators continue to seek her firing or resignation and that in March she was served with “amended” disciplinary charges that eliminated the charges brought against her in 2012 and asserted new, different charges.

Mrs. O’Dell claims, among other things, that the alleged discrimination violates her constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. She also makes claims of malicious prosecution, breach of contract, libel and slander and infliction of emotional distress, among other causes.

Her attorney, A.J. Bosman, Rome, was not available for additional comment Tuesday. Sheriff Burns similarly could not be reached for comment, while Lt. Spencer said he could not comment on litigation. The remaining defendants also could not be reached for comment.

County Attorney David J. Paulsen said he could not discuss specific allegations contained in the suit, which was served on the county last week, owing to the ongoing disciplinary action against Mrs. O’Dell, but said the county will file denials of the allegations.

“We don’t believe we’ve done anything discriminatory to her,” he said.

Mr. Paulsen said a hearing on the disciplinary action was scheduled to take place in August, but was postponed when Mrs. O’Dell filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The hearing has been rescheduled for early November, he said.

The sheriff’s department already is facing a $50 million state Supreme Court suit brought by Deputy Krystal G. Rice, who claims a detective took topless photos of her for use in an online pedophile investigation, but the photos no longer can be accounted for and she has no way of knowing how the photos were used or who viewed them. However, much of that lawsuit has been dismissed, with only a cause of action for breach of contract remaining.

A notice of claim, but no lawsuit, has been filed by Michelle R. Bowens, a twice-convicted felon now in state prison, who claims that Mr. Neff sent her unwanted photos of a male’s genitals on his county-issued cellphone and offered to intervene on her behalf with the district attorney’s office when forgery and possession of stolen property charges were still pending against her.

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