By ERIC TICHY
OBSERVER Mayville Bureau
MAYVILLE - County Court Judge candidate William F. Coughlin had a history of sexual harassment complaints from women and anger issues while serving as assistant district attorney and public defender, court documents surrounding a 2003 lawsuit show.
His behavior produced a series of reprimands and warnings from then-District Attorney James Subjack and then-Legislature Chairman Keith Ahlstrom.
Coughlin, a Democratic county legislator representing Fredonia, served as assistant district attorney from 1996 to 2002, at which time he became public defender. He left the Public Defender's Office in 2011 and took a job in Buffalo.
The documents referenced are part of a 2003 lawsuit filed against Coughlin and Chautauqua County and include incidents up to August 2003.
"I did go to anger management and I did change my life around," Coughlin said when reached for comment by the OBSERVER. "Of course, I wonder why this is being brought up for things that happened 10 years ago. You're telling me someone doesn't change in 10 years?"
Coughlin's reprimands spanned almost a decade. A female employee in the District Attorney's Office said in August 1996 that Coughlin made "inappropriate, improper and unnecessary" comments to her and others. Coughlin is told in a letter by Subjack to halt such actions and avoid nonessential contact with the complainant.
"We discussed that such conduct and references are indeed inappropriate," Subjack said in a letter of reprimand, "and they shall not be tolerated and you are to immediately cease and desist such actions."
In 1999, Coughlin received a letter from the district attorney regarding an incident in which Coughlin raised his voice over a missed telephone message. Subjack advised Coughlin that he could have handled the situation differently.
"As you know, you have been the subject of a good number of complaints to me by other district attorney employees, other county employees, police officers and members of the general public," Subjack said. "Some of those complaints are justified, some of them are not."
Subjack said he found Coughlin an "extremely valuable, capable and dedicated employee," and directed him to enroll in an anger management program.
A year later, Subjack sent a letter to Coughlin, questioning the status of the anger management program. The follow up is the result of an Aug. 9, 2000, incident involving a grand juror. Subjack advised Coughlin to submit information regarding his anger management sessions solely "to determine whether or not other avenues may be explored in order to get your anger and your mouth under control."
Ten days later, Subjack sent a letter to Kurt Gustafson of the county law department, advising him to draft charges against Coughlin as a result of the incident. Before those charges were served, Subjack advised Gustafson to allow Coughlin to voluntarily agree to a suspension.
Subjack believed three days without pay would catch Coughlin's attention.
On Oct. 31, 2000, Subjack sent a letter to the grand juror, updating her on Coughlin's anger management program and a letter of apology. The grand juror suggests a suspension of four weeks, which Subjack replied was "excessive" due to the fine it would impose.
He also noted at the time that the vacancy of Coughlin in the District Attorney's Office would create hardship for other attorneys.
On Jan. 3, 2001, Coughlin received a letter from Subjack about two reports of inappropriate conduct that occurred during the course of a then-recently completed trial. One of the complaints is from a cable news reporter who said Coughlin made an "inappropriate comment" regarding her body.
The reporter requested an apology from Coughlin. Subjack said without one, he believed the reporter would air a story about the incident - hurting Coughlin's chance of becoming public defender.
"Surely, if such a story were to ever air, it would be extremely unlikely that you would be appointed public defender either in this round or ever again," Subjack wrote to Coughlin.
A year later, Coughlin sent a three-sentence letter to the reporter, apologizing for his comment.
In April 2003, Coughlin received a letter from then-legislature Chairman Keith Ahlstrom regarding two complaints of sexual harassment filed by women in the Public Defender's Office.
The letter states an investigation was beginning and Coughlin was not to engage in "any conduct that constitute sexual harassment under the county's sexual harassment policy, or engage in any conduct that could be deemed retaliatory action towards the employees who made the initial complaints."
A former employee in the Public Defender's Office in June 2003 sued the county and Coughlin following her termination almost a year earlier. The county is sued for denial of process and violation of her First Amendment rights; Coughlin is sued individually for discrimination, retaliation, violation of her First and Fourteenth amendment rights and abuse of process.
According to Steve Abdella, county attorney, the county's insurance company on Jan. 24, 2006, settled the lawsuit for $150,000 - all of which was paid by the insurance company.
Coughlin said he has changed his behavior.
"I have not done anything in the last 10 years that has been inappropriate," he said. "I believe the anger management has helped me out."
Ahlstrom, who is now the County Democratic Committee chairman, declined to comment.