A Real Harass Man

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.