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Jokin' Joe Has Left and Gone Away

A veteran official of the Colorado Department of Corrections resigned last week in the wake of controversy surrounding two sexual-harassment lawsuits that have cost the state more than a million dollars.

The departure of Joe Paolino, associate warden of the Territorial Correctional Facility, came three weeks after a $287,500 settlement was reached in the case of Donna Fails, a former prison guard who claimed that Paolino harassed her and later fired her -- and one week after a Westword article that examined Paolino's role in the Fails case and in a previous lawsuit that resulted in a $750,000 settlement ("A Real Harass Man," December 23, 1999). Two other claims by female DOC employees alleging harassment by Paolino are still pending in federal court.

In a brief phone conversation, Paolino denied that his decision to leave the agency, which he described as a retirement, had anything to do with the ongoing litigation. He then declined further comment and hung up. A statement circulated to employees by Territorial warden Larry Embry states, "It has come to my attention that several rumors concerning Mr. Paolino's decision are circulating throughout the Department, none of which are true. Mr. Paolino is leaving to pursue other interests and opportunities."

But DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough acknowledges that, despite his 26 years of employment, the 51-year-old Paolino would have required another four years of service to qualify for full retirement benefits. "I would characterize it as a resignation," she says. "You can characterize it any way you want."

A popular administrator who rose through the ranks, Paolino was also the target of numerous complaints by women under his command, who say that he made crude sexual jokes at staff meetings and innuendo-laced sexual advances in private meetings; offered women massages and dubious compliments, such as declaring that one employee was "built like a brick shithouse"; and retaliated against them for complaining about his conduct or that of other male officers. Paolino has admitted that he may have made comments about female anatomy and "swinging dicks," but he denied harassing anyone or covering up others' misconduct.

Paolino was a harassment-prevention trainer at a prison outside Ordway when Sandra Haberman, a former guard at the prison, successfully sued over harassment issues; the case was eventually settled by the state attorney general's office for $750,000. Yet in 1996, Paolino was promoted to the job of warden at Centennial Correctional Facility. Fails claims she was fired from her job at Centennial after Paolino urged her to keep quiet about her harassment by another male officer and then made sexual advances himself.

Other complaints about the warden followed. In 1998 Paolino was demoted and reassigned to Territorial after an internal investigation found that he had created "an organizational culture at CCF that was conducive to crude verbal, physical or symbolic sexual behaviors."

According to attorneys involved in the Haberman and Fails lawsuits, the State of Colorado has paid for Paolino's representation by private attorneys in both cases. Paolino was not a named defendant in those cases, but a federal appeals court recently ruled that he could be sued as an individual in a third suit filed by another DOC employee, Louella Watkins, in which he is also being represented by a private law firm at state expense.

At press time, the Colorado Attorney General's Office had not responded to requests for information concerning the total state costs of the lawsuits.

 
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