Last August, just as the gubernatorial election was heating up,the state’s inspector general released a damning, 12-page report confirming charges of sexual harassment and ethnic hazing by a top state labor official. The report found that the behavior of Edward Drago, the agency’s $89,000-a-year director of apprentice training, included “recurrent explicit, hostile, vulgar, offensive and often demeaning comments based upon gender, and in some cases, ethnicity.”
The report didn’t touch on Drago’s political connections—he is the brother of a woman who is the acknowledged mistress of Guy Velella, the nine-term Republican state senator from the Bronx who heads the senate’s labor committee and also serves as liaison to the governor’s office. But it didn’t have to: The clear, between-the-lines message was that only a person supremely confident of his position would engage in conduct so reckless and arrogant.
The report found that Drago, 52, didn’t just hit on Suzanne Strauss, 50, a married mother who was a midlevel manager at the state’s education department evaluating apprenticeship programs. After Strauss rebuffed Drago’s advances, he conducted a nonstop harassment campaign against her, ordering his staff—in written memos—to not even to talk to her.
HARDING PAL QUITS CITY POST
Richard Roberts, a one-time star of the Giuliani administration who used his city-provided credit card for a spree at a New Orleans strip club, resigned his position as chairman of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation this week, city officials said. The move came almost a year after the Voice revealed the credit card abuses and three weeks after the federal indictment of Russell Harding, another ex-Giuliani housing aide. Harding was charged with squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars from the New York City Housing Development Corporation, where Roberts served as chairman of the board until 2000. The investigation is continuing into others who shared in Harding’s free-spending ways, a group that includes Roberts.
Roberts declined comment, but aides to Mayor Bloomberg, who retained Roberts in his post, denied he had been forced out. In addition to his resignation from the hospitals post, Roberts also quit as a board member of the Residential Mortgage Insurance Corporation, a tiny public authority that insures low-cost housing.
Roberts joined the Giuliani administration in 1994 and was promoted to commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in 1997, a job that included chairmanship of the Housing Development Corporation. There, he became such good pals with Harding that the pair took a Las Vegas junket together. When Roberts quit as commissioner in 2000, Harding threw him a lavish $22,000 party at city expense and also gave him the use of a brand-new, deluxe Chevy Tahoe. The freebies were included in this month’s indictment. —Tom Robbins
Nor did the investigators have any trouble finding others to corroborate Strauss’s claims. Seven other state aides, including top labor department officials, related their own accounts of Drago’s heavy-handed behavior. A female senior attorney in the agency’s counsel office described Drago as “crude, vulgar, and unprofessional,” as well as given to making “inappropriate comments in the presence of women.” Drago’s former assistant, also a woman, said his nicknames for other agency officials included “fat bitch,” “big tits,” and “the chink.” A second senior attorney—a man—said he had heard Drago publicly refer to Strauss as “that fucking cunt.”
One woman told the I.G. she had transferred out of Drago’s unit to get away from him, adding that the director “seemed unable to pass female employees without touching them.” A labor department program manager told investigators that in one case Drago’s behavior with a female official at yet another agency had been so outrageous that it had fouled up a federal grant, prompting representatives of that agency to ask the governor’s office to straighten him out. The program manager said she considered filing her own complaint against Drago “but believed it would be useless.” The reason? It was “common knowledge,” she said, that Drago, who has worked at the agency since 1985, was good friends with top agency personnel officials, and so any grievance would “fall on deaf ears.”
Mincing no words in its findings, the inspector general’s office recommended that discipline be taken against Drago, and also cited his supervisors for having failed to intervene in the three-year-long period of harassment.
Once the report was received, the labor department ostensibly did the right thing, removing Drago from his post while it evaluated the findings. Strauss and others who had endured his abuse waited for justice to be done.
It wasn’t. Instead, a few days after Governor Pataki was overwhelmingly re-elected, the department immediately reinstated Drago in his old position. There was no suspen-sion, no fine, no apology. Not even an order that Drago undergo the kind of anti-sexual-harassment counseling often required in these kinds of cases.
Both Drago and agency officials refused to respond to repeated requests for information. But in November, a labor department spokesperson offered a cryptic explanation to Albany Times-Union reporter James Odato: The agency had taken “appropriate action under the Civil Service law.”
What that meant in plain English, according to people familiar with the episode, was that the agency had complied with civil service regulations that require it to conduct its own internal evaluation, and then decided there was no action to be taken. The Department of Education’s response was even worse. There, Strauss, a 17-year veteran, was removed from her job as the statewide monitor of apprentice programs, and assigned to a make-work position with perfunctory duties.
“I got several different explanations,” said Strauss. “First, they said I was removed for my protection. Then it was for reorganization, then it was for downsizing, saying they don’t have the manpower to handle apprentices anymore. I know that’s not true because they have a new person doing it now.”
Strauss believes that what really bothered Drago was not so much her physical rejection of him as her refusal to sign off on a private, for-profit apprenticeship program run by a contractor Drago appeared to favor—concerns she relayed to the I.G. The program was to be based at the state university’s Maritime College, located in Velella’s Bronx district. “Ed was a very big supporter of that program,” she said. “He fought tooth and nail for it.”
Strauss, whose job was to evaluate the instructional components of apprentice programs, said the proposal was deficient in many ways, including shortcuts that would have had plumbing apprentices taking the same classes as electricians. At one point, after she had turned down both the proposal and Drago’s passes, he threatened her. “He said if I didn’t approve that program, I’d lose my job,” she said.
Strauss’s response was to hire an Albany-based attorney, Kevin Luibrand, and file a lawsuit against Drago and the education and labor departments. All parties have denied the charges and the suit is pending.
For his part, Drago also filed notice that he intended to sue the inspector general over the report, but took no further action. Privately, he told associates that it had all come to nothing, that the charges against him had simply been dropped. Since then, according to people who work with him and who didn’t want to be identified, his boorish conduct against other staff has continued unabated.
Velella also ducked questions about the matter. But his efforts on behalf of the rest of the Drago family are part of the lore and legend of legislative Albany. In 1987, seeking to defuse a newspaper exposé he knew was coming, Velella—a married father of four—publicly acknowledged that he had a daughter out of wedlock with an Albany secretary named Barbara Drago, Edward’s sister. The senator said he had made arrangements to support the child financially.
With taxpayer help, he did. Since then, Barbara Drago has held a string of patronage jobs, capped by her current position as a $101,000-a-year administrative aide at the State University of New York. That post came after she served as acting director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship, a patronage-heavy, state-funded entity accused by the state comptroller last year of having squandered hundreds of thousands of government dollars.
Velella’s assistance even extended to Drago’s mother. In 1993, Newsday reported that the Bronx senator had fashioned legislation aimed at larding the pension of one person, then 65-year-old Mary Ann Drago, with a $24,000 sweetener.
There was one more ruse at public expense, according to prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. They claim Velella funneled money to pay for tuition for Barbara Drago’s daughter out of bribes from state contractors that were disguised as legal fees to his father’s law firm. The charges are part of a 25-count indictment against Velella and his father Vincent unsealed last year. Both men have insisted on their innocence and trial is scheduled for 2004.
None of that seemed to be bothering Velella last July, when he showed up with Barbara Drago and their daughter at the Georgian, a posh Lake George resort, as guests of the state’s apprenticeship council. The annual event was hosted by Ed Drago and many top labor officials and politicians attended. It was a three-day conference and at the awards banquet, the Dragos and Velella all sat together at the head table, according to those who were present. Overnight rooms were made available for those honored guests, while the rest of the attendees, including Strauss, who was there as the official representative of the education department, drove back and forth from their homes.