The Albany investigation that led to the forced resignation of Erie County Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger is just the first stage of Erie County looking to prevent a repeat.
Dirschberger may be gone - forced out by Erie County Executive Poloncarz over an incident he says violated county rules at a conference in Albany Dec. 5-6 - but county officials say these situations are complicated to investigate.
Probes of these he said/she said encounters are a regular part of the criminal justice system, as cops and prosecutors study the evidence and try to winnow out what happened. Legislators also want to look at training, procedures and even background checks to improve the information made available.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn says he is familiar with these investigations from his days as a JAG officer, looking at bad behavior of sailors and Marines, especially off base. Flynn says these investigations go much better if the victim comes forward immediately rather than delay, as memories fade.
"It's much better if you have a statement that's taken right after an incident occurs and, so yeah, the more time that went by, the harder it was from a memory standpoint," Flynn says. "My experience in the military, we prosecuted these cases that some times occurred months and months later."
Flynn and Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard say these probes can also be complicated if there is alcohol involved and memories are blurred as to what happened.
"I don't think anybody would like to say, 'I'm not sure what I did yesterday,' but if someone said I did something and I'm pretty certain that I didn't do, I'd like to remember that I didn't," Howard says. "So I would probably caution anybody not to be drinking to the level that you don't remember sometimes the things that you saw or the things that you heard. If that's the case, you're drinking too much."
Legislator Lynne Dixon says for appointments like social services commissioner, there has to be a deep background check, possibly beyond just criminal record checks, because the commissioner is privy to so much truly personal information. She says the Legislature that took office Monday also needs to know more, especially central questions.
"Who knew what and when and how long has this been brewing," Dixon says. "It's a concern to me if there have been allegations that have been out there for a while, that we have somebody continuing to run the largest department in Erie County that deals with the most sensitive issues of family."