Scott Russell cleared by Southold Town in Damon Hagan accusation

Five members of the Southold Town Board voted Tuesday evening to adopt findings from an investigator tasked with evaluating allegations by former assistant town attorney Damon Hagan that Supervisor Scott Russell violated the town’s workplace violence prevention and sexual harassment policies.

Mr. Russell recused himself from voting on adopting the investigator’s findings.

“The investigator found that there was no basis in either [policy violation],” Mr. Russell said following Tuesday’s Town Board meeting. “He accused me of retaliating against him and refusing to give him a promotion because he filed a complaint against me. The investigator said that’s not true, and in fact, there’s no indication I knew about the complaint, and that he’s actually contradicted by saying that I called him and tried to talk him out of resigning. There would be no retaliation if I’m trying to get him to keep his job.”

Although the Town Board adopted these findings, the matter is still ongoing. In a legal complaint filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights dated Oct. 26, 2023, Mr. Hagan accused Mr. Russell and the Town of Southold of “unlawful discriminatory practice relating to his employment based on harassment, sexual harassment, as well as retaliation.” 

When reached for comment Wednesday morning about the Town Board’s resolution and the complaint he filed, Mr. Hagan said, “It would be highly inappropriate for anyone to comment on what is an internal employee matter.”

According to Tuesday’s Town Board agenda item, the investigator concluded in his “independent investigation of claims made against Supervisor Scott A. Russell, that there was no violation of the town’s workplace violence prevention policy or workplace sexual harassment policy and no basis for the complaint concerning the Jan. 3, 2023, incident involving Damon Hagan.”

According to the complaint, this “incident” kicked off on Dec. 27, 2022, when Mr. Hagan alleges that Mr. Russell used profane language in a phone call with him after he told the supervisor “he wanted to be treated better and paid properly.” Later that same day, the complaint states, Mr. Russell sent an email “instructing the Comptroller to put a resolution on the Town Board agenda to name [Mr. Hagan] as deputy town attorney and to be paid as such.” When this did not appear on the town’s Jan. 3, 2023, agenda, Mr. Hagan submitted a letter of resignation, stating his final day in office would be Jan. 16, 2023.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Hagan wrote, “After working for the Town of Southold for the past seven years, as not only your assistant town attorney, but also your Workplace Violence Coordinator, I no longer feel safe working in an environment where I have been subjected to verbal abuse, sexually graphic and offensive language by Town Supervisor Scott Russell.”

Mr. Hagan said he was “compelled by [the town’s] Workplace Violence Policy to enter a complaint regarding the supervisor and his offensive conduct glorifying sexual assault and rape culture that was directed directly at me.”

According to Southold Town’s Workplace Violence Policy Statement, town employees “will be relied upon to report incidents of workplace violence: If you feel threatened, report it; if you see an altercation, report it; if you hear verbal abuse or bullying, report it.” Workplace violence is defined as any “act or threat” of physical violence and can range from “verbal abuse to physical assaults,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website.

On Feb. 14, the Town Board authorized town attorney Paul DeChance to retain Lamb & Barnosky LLP of Melville to investigate Mr. Hagan’s claims. The law firm then hired Dr. John Coverdale, president of the Center for Workplace Solutions, a professional services consulting firm that, among other things, specializes in workplace dispute resolution, to handle the investigation. Mr. Russell said the Town Board members, himself included, reviewed Dr. Coverdale’s findings earlier in the day Tuesday. A redacted report will be available to the public via a FOIL request “probably within 30 days,” according to Mr. DeChance.

Mr. Russell said he hopes the situation will now be put to rest.

“My attorneys reviewed it, and although the bar was set very high, they found that his accusations were not just defamatory, they were actionable,” he said. “But I instructed them that I’m not interested in pursuing any action. The reality is when you’re in public service, elected or appointed, sometimes people are going to say things you don’t like. Sometimes people are going to say things that are not true. If you can’t deal with that, go do something else. What his accusations were, I knew they were baseless. I said that from the beginning. I want to move forward. I’m not interested in dragging this out.

“I do regret the way it all unfolded because I consider Damon a good attorney and a good friend and I wish it didn’t end the way it ended,” he continued. “But it was beyond my control. He chose to resign and I wish he didn’t.”