By Kevin Deutsch
The head of Human Resources for the city’s Department of Social Services was allowed to resign quietly after investigators substantiated a claim that he groped his assistant at a work event and sexually harassed her, Bronx Justice News has learned.
Michael Laidlaw, formerly the Executive Deputy Commissioner of DSS’ Office of Staff Resources, grabbed Special Assistant Jacqueline Torres’ buttocks at an off-site office gathering in March 2016 as part of his pattern of harassment against her, city investigators found.
The Equal Employment Opportunity complaints filed by Torres that month were “swiftly investigated and substantiated” by DDS, an agency official with knowledge of the probe said.
In August 2016, the agency began a process that would have led to Laidlaw’s firing, the official said.
Instead, Laidlaw resigned quietly with no public announcement made about the groping incident or harassment at the nation’s largest social service agency.
Laidlaw is not alone – several other city employees have been pushed out of their jobs in recent years following substantiated sexual harassment claims, without the reasons for their departures being publicly disclosed by the city.
Laidlaw’s exit from one of DSS’ top positions was first reported by Bronx Justice News Tuesday, after Torres filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in Bronx Supreme Court seeking damages from the city as well as Laidlaw. Laidlaw’s departure from the agency, and the substantiated groping and harassment claims against him, had not previously been made public.
“There is no place for harassment of any kind in our City,” Social Services Spokesman Isaac McGinn said. “We take concerns like this very seriously, investigate thoroughly, and moved to terminate Mr. Laidlaw upon substantiating the complaints in this case. Mr. Laidlaw resigned under threat of termination.”
DSS is comprised of the administrative units of the NYC Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services. It oversees most of the city’s social service programs.
Torres, a Bronx resident, alleged in her suit that a “culture of sexual harassment” exists within the agency.
At the event where Laidlaw grabbed her, he also “danced inappropriately with a subordinate” while DSS executives stood by laughing, the suit states.
One of those executives was Gary Jenkins, now the First Deputy Commissioner for the city’s Human Resources Administration, who Torres says told her, “Go get your boss. It is your job to keep him out of trouble,” before he broke into laughter, the suit alleges.
The other official was Tom Colon, Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Staff Resources, Torres said.
Both Jenkins and Colon previously had multiple sexual harassment complaints filed against them, but DSS “did nothing to stop their behavior,” and even gave them pay increases, Torres claims in her suit.
Both men were seen on video at the off-site event laughing at Laidlaw’s inappropriate behavior, the suit alleges.
Efforts to reach Laidlaw, Jenkins, and Colon for response to the lawsuit were unsuccessful.
The DSS official with knowledge of the probe said there have been “no substantiated EEO complaints against Colon or Jenkins.”
Torres said her problems didn’t end with Laidlaw’s resignation.
She claims DSS higher-ups loyal to their old boss retaliated against Torres by removing her access to internal computer systems, curtailing her authority, and spreading rumors meant to harm her reputation and credibility.
The behavior of her colleagues led Torres, a retired Army Major who worked in human resources for the military branch, to seek a job in a different department – a change she said amounted to a demotion and which derailed Torres’ career, she said.
Despite the transfer, DSS executives and employees continued to spread confidential information about Torres’ complaint, making her employment at the agency intolerable, she said.
The DSS official said “corrective action” was taken with employees who inappropriately spoke to Torres about her claims against Laidlaw, including “providing direct counseling, warnings, and retrainings on necessary protocol for formally referring and escalating any and all such complaints.”
Torres, who had earned a $96,000 salary in Human Resources, left for a job that paid $30,000 less because of the ongoing harassment, the suit alleges.
The DSS official denied Torres’ claim that she was effectively demoted before her departure.
“While at the Agency, Ms. Torres voluntarily sought a position with a different department within the Agency where she received the same salary — allegations of demotion are not accurate.”
In an Oct. 21 e-mail to Bronx Justice News, Lori Blair, a Texas-based attorney retained by Laidlaw, said: “In over 35 years of his career fighting inequities, Mr. Laidlaw has never had a complaint, grievance, or lawsuit filed against him. That not one person joined Ms. Torres in her lawsuit or grievance illuminates the falsehood of there being multiple complaints regarding our client.”
Blair said “there was no complaint filed” against Laidlaw alleging he ever danced inappropriately with a subordinate; an allegation made in Torres’ lawsuit.
“Our client resigned his position rather than subject himself to a process he knew would be unfairly used to undermine his effectiveness,” wrote Blair. “Mr. Laidlaw understood from his experiences that the process is the punishment and this unmerited complaint would cast a cloud over his leadership.”
Blair said Torres’ lawsuit “is still ongoing and may in fact be dismissed (a dismissal hearing in the case is scheduled soon). Justice, in this instance, has not yet run its course and Mr. Laidlaw’s defense should be allowed to be fully heard before any allegations are reported as true.”
This story has been updated.