Erie County Social Services Commissioner abruptly forced to resign

Dec 29, 2017

Al Dirschberger has gone from Erie County Social Services commissioner to a "person of interest" in a potentially criminal Albany incident involving a subordinate.

Thursday afternoon, the Social Services commissioner resigned under extreme pressure from Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.  Speaking to a late afternoon news conference, Poloncarz said he learned of a complaint about the commissioner's behavior involving a subordinate during a conference in Albany December 5 and 6 and that the incident violated a number of unspecified county policies.

Al Dirschberger (left), appearing with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, at a past news briefing at the Rath Building.
Credit WBFO News file photo

Poloncarz did not say what the incident was, but it is under investigation by the Albany Police Department and the Albany County District Attorney.

"I had not talked to him at all since I had learned of these alleged allegations on Saturday the 23rd, until I actually talked to him in the conference today," Poloncarz said. "I led the conference. I asked the questions. Based on his response, I determined that he violated county policy. I told him I believed he violated county policy. I had no longer any faith in him and I asked him for his resignation and he resigned."

There was no explanation about why it took more than two weeks for the situation to get to Poloncarz. He was very cautious about the specifics of the whole situation.

"I expect when I hire someone to serve in a high capacity role in my administration, I expect them to serve with integrity," he said. "I expect them to serve honorably. I expect them to serve the people of this community, as I remind all  members of my administration, including individuals that I don't appoint."

Poloncarz said he cannot even say which county policies were violated because that would suggest what is being investigated. The resignation was originally reported as for personal reasons, but reporting during the afternoon forced a news conference to give more details.

Poloncarz immediately put First Deputy Marie Cannon in the position of acting commissioner, a post she has held before. If Dirschberger had refused to quit, removing him would have been complicated because the commissioner serves a fixed term and firing him would involve a quasi-judicial hearing panel involving the county executive, County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and the chair of the County Legislature.

Outgoing Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo said it is all mysterious.

"The whole thing makes me wonder," Lorigo said. "I wonder how long the administration was aware that there was a pending criminal investigation, how long the administration was aware what type of criminal investigation it was and, if they were aware, why did they allow the commissioner to come before the Legislature and speak on their behalf last week?"

Poloncarz said he did not find out about what happened until Saturday and the process immediately involved Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte, County Attorney Michael Siragusa and the vacationing in England Personnel Commissioner David Palmer. There were a series of meetings and phone conferences, calls to Albany and determination to keep it all quiet until 10 a.m. Thursday, when Dirschberger was called and told to report to the Rath Building. He also was out of town, so the final demand for a resignation and the agreement took place on a conference call.