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A Real Harass Man

Joe Paolino played a major role in cases that have cost the state more than a million dollars.

Warning: The language in this story may be considered inappropriate for children and quite possibly revolting by any adult not employed by the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Whatever else you might say about Joe Paolino, he's not shy about handing out compliments. One woman who worked for him says he told her that she "looked good enough to eat" and that she was "built like a brick shithouse." Furthermore, she says, he declared that he would "eat a mile of her shit to see where it came from."

During his two-year stint as the warden of a state prison, Paolino referred fondly to women under his command as "split tails." He reportedly informed the woman who developed sex-harassment prevention programs for the Colorado Department of Corrections that women shouldn't be employed in prison work. But his personal convictions didn't stop him from trying to find ways to lighten their load, offering certain female employees massages, neck rubs or the golden opportunity to "get naked" with him on his boat or in the prison vault.

It's not every supervisor who could commune with the common man by hanging out with the guys at the prison gate, flashing the "meat gazer" sign and bantering over the physical and sexual attributes of passing females. Not just any boss, surely, who would have the foresight and decisiveness to call a staff meeting by instructing a subordinate to summon "every swinging dick in the place."

But then, the former warden of the Centennial Correctional Facility isn't just any swinging dick. He's Joe Paolino, nobody's gigolo -- a corrections veteran whose potty-mouth behavior at two prisons has contributed to two hefty sex-harassment verdicts in federal court, costing the state treasury in excess of a million dollars.

Last year Paolino was removed from his post at Centennial as the result of a harassment complaint and reassigned as associate warden at another prison. The disciplinary action came too late, though, to ward off a string of lawsuits from women alleging that Paolino had harassed them; that he had retaliated against them for refusing his sexual advances or complaining about other male officers; and that he had perpetuated a crude, sexually charged atmosphere within the DOC, in which "good old boys" are protected and women who resist are branded troublemakers or fired.

"Paolino was out of control at Centennial," says William Finger, an attorney whose law firm has handled several harassment and discrimination suits against the DOC. "The guy is a disaster."

Last week Finger's firm settled the case of Donna Fails with the state attorney general's office for $287,500, including attorneys' fees and other costs. A few days before, a federal jury had awarded Fails, a former Centennial corrections officer who claimed that she was fired after she rejected Paolino's advances, $187,500 for emotional distress. The state contended that Fails was fired for falsifying reports, but several witnesses portrayed Paolino as a sex-obsessed and intimidating boss who made innuendo-laced comments about numerous women, including Fails.

Paolino could not be reached for comment. DOC executive director John Suthers and other corrections officials declined to comment, other than through a prepared statement expressing the department's "concern" over the Fails verdict. "We continue to have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment," the statement continues. "This matter is now being handled by state personnel rules, so we can't comment further."

The Fails settlement comes nearly three years after the resolution of the Haberman lawsuit, another big-ticket harassment case in which Paolino played a key role. Sandra Haberman, who worked as a guard at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in the early 1990s, claimed to have been harassed by male staffers who made degrading comments, demanded sexual favors and threatened to put her at risk from inmates if she complained about them. Paolino wasn't a named defendant in the suit, but he was a deputy warden at Arkansas Valley and a trainer who conducted harassment-prevention classes. Haberman charged that Paolino, who already had a reputation for offering massages and speculating on female employees' sexual talents, failed to investigate her complaints and urged her to drop the matter ("Caught Off Guard," February 6, 1997).

A jury found in favor of Haberman to the tune of $362,500; with attorney fees, lost wages and other costs, the total award came to $750,000.

Even as the Haberman case was making its way through the courts, Paolino was promoted to the top job at Centennial. At a going-away party at Arkansas Valley, colleagues presented him with sexually oriented gag gifts (enormous plastic balls, pantyhose with a sheath for a male member in the crotch) and a fake letter from a former secretary accusing him of harassment, which prompted Paolino to jeer at the accuser's lack of sexual appeal.

After a videotape of the tacky party began to circulate around the agency, both Paolino and warden Richard Marr were officially reprimanded over the incident. But the slap on the wrist did little to curb Paolino's sense of fun at his new post. Several witnesses at Fails's trial testified that the warden frequently engaged in sexual innuendo and jokes at staff meetings, during roll calls, and in his office.

"He seemed to be everywhere," says Donna Fails. "I think of him as the wolf in 'Little Red Riding Hood.'"

Fails, a relatively new DOC employee who'd previously worked in corrections in Louisiana, says she was unaware of the new warden's reputation when she went to see him about a male officer's unwanted attentions. Paolino's behavior during the meeting, she says, was "very unprofessional and humiliating."

"He asked me if I was familiar with the inmate code of silence," she says. "He said, 'Just like the inmates don't tell on each other, we don't tell on each other.' He gave me a direct order to keep quiet."

After the meeting, Fails says, she never complained about the warden, because she was afraid of losing her job, but she had "no doubt whatsoever" about the way he ogled her or his suggestive invitations to have coffee. "I was very uncomfortable, and he knew that," she says. "It was like a game to him. He knew I was afraid, and he had me on the run."

On the stand, Paolino admitted that he may have made comments about split tails and swinging dicks, but he denied that he set out to harass anyone. "I believe I have a sense of humor, but the effort to portray me as some sort of sexual pervert who dominates conversations with these jokes is completely unfounded," he declared in one affidavit in the case. He disciplined employees who harassed others, he insisted, and "referred to individuals as 'pinheads' when they refuse[d] to make the paradigm shift which involves trying to understand others and being sensitive to others."

But behind the talk of paradigm shifts, Fails says, was the prison system's inviolable code of silence. The official rationale for her 1998 dismissal had to do with her efforts to report another guard for abusing an inmate and possibly smuggling contraband; while she was fired for a supposedly false report, a male officer who made a similar report wasn't disciplined. (The guard she'd complained about was later fired after being caught with a crack pipe.)

Fear of retaliation kept even high-ranking women from challenging Paolino, according to Susan Jones, an associate warden who testified in the Fails case. Jones claimed to have witnessed numerous inappropriate comments and gestures from the warden, including a hand signal so popular among male staffers that it became known as the "meat gazer" sign. But she said she was afraid to report the incidents -- even though she'd conducted numerous harassment training classes in the DOC since 1990. When she did approach a regional director about Paolino, she added, she received no response.

"It was just tolerated activity," says Fails attorney Darrell Damschen. "The underlying attitude in the Department of Corrections isn't what's on paper." A 1997 "climate survey" of DOC employees, he notes, indicated that more than half of the respondents didn't believe they could file a grievance about another employee without fear of retaliation.

Another key witness in the case was Kelli Sluder, a corrections standards coordinator who was the subject of many of Paolino's most graphic (and coprophagic) remarks. Although the defense attempted to depict Sluder as a willing participant in the warden's off-color banter, it was her complaints about Paolino's incessant come-ons that finally led to a DOC investigation and his demotion last fall.

In a fourteen-page letter to Paolino, correctional programs director Dennis Kleinsasser outlined various allegations against the warden and concluded that he was responsible for "creating and personally reinforcing an organizational culture at CCF that was conducive to crude verbal, physical, or symbolic sexual behaviors." The fact that such behavior had occurred despite Paolino's prior training in harassment issues and his participation in the Haberman case made the offense an act of "willful misconduct."

Paolino is now an associate warden at the Territorial Correctional Facility, but his legal odyssey is far from over; his name looms large in at least two more harassment lawsuits against the department. One was filed by Kelli Sluder, who was transferred to another prison after her complaint against Paolino and found conditions there so "unpleasant" that she soon took a leave of absence that's extended to this day. The other plaintiff is Louella Watkins, who worked with Paolino at Arkansas Valley and claims to have suffered retaliation as a result of her complaints about him and her role in supporting race- and sex-discrimination complaints made by other employees.

That Paolino is still employed by the DOC amazes Donna Fails, who says the type of harassment she encountered at Centennial would never have been tolerated in the Louisiana prison system. "I don't know why they don't address these situations," she says. "There's a lot of it. Paolino is just one of the most blatant, daredevil types. My message to all DOC employees is to stand up for your rights like a human being."

Publicly, Joe Paolino isn't offering any messages right now, even of the hand-signal variety. But there's a moment on the video of his 1996 going-away party that takes on deeper significance with each costly lawsuit. Among the gag gifts for the new warden: a toy pistol with the barrel pointing at the shooter.

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