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NYC- The Madison Square Garden empire is a hotbed of sexual harassment, with pervasive complaints from temporary bar staff to senior managers, a Daily News investigation has found.

Past and present female employees described an overwhelming “frat boy” culture that seemingly permeates every tier of the huge organization, according to interviews and legal papers.

Though a sign posted at the employee entrance to the Garden on W. 33rd St. promises “fair and respectful treatment” to all personnel, female employees told The News of instances where they work surrounded by sexist jokes, bikini-clad pinups and even a blowup doll.

Others described much more aggressive and frightening abuse – incidents stunningly similar to harassment claims made by Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks’ former vice president of marketing, and former Rangers City Skater Courtney Prince.

Browne Sanders made headlines last month when she charged she was harassed by Knicks President Isiah Thomas and that when she complained, Garden managers fired her.

Prince has an ongoing lawsuit charging that members of the skating troupe were expected to flirt with Garden bosses, who asked, “Who’s loose?” and “Which is the wild one?”

In a pattern echoing those two cases, many of those interviewed contended that managers were often reluctant to tackle abuse complaints, leaving victims to address the situation on their own while being made to suffer for speaking up.

“If you complain, they try to disconnect you, not let anyone talk to you,” said one woman who said she was fired after complaining of inappropriate approaches by a co-worker.

“The complaints you hear about are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Cathy Harris, who complained last April of being harassed by three superiors during four years of working in the food and merchandise department. “Everybody is terrified to complain. They know that the managers are all friends together, that they look after each other and, if you complain, they’ll make you suffer.” Harris said she was fired after she complained.

Madison Square Garden, which employs 4,600, reacted Friday by having 12 female employees contact a News reporter to voice their support for the company, and the behavior of its personnel.

Debbie Schneider, vice president for operations and administration, said, “I’ve been there nine years. Sexual harassment is not part of my experience at all.”

The Garden issued a statement to The News: “MSG has a comprehensive anti-harassment policy that includes provisions for employees to raise concerns and prohibits retaliation for making complaints. We have a zero tolerance for a hostile work environment and have always been proud of how our employees are treated.”

Several of those interviewed asserted that complaining employees were told to solve their own problems – including two former Garden executives who said their efforts to address complaints were thwarted by their superiors.

“I’d hear, ‘Way worse has happened and we didn’t do anything,’ ” said one man, who asked not to be identified. “It was a very hard thing to live with.”

Added the other former executive: “I tried to address these issues but we never got anywhere.”

One woman said that after she complained of a co-worker’s unwanted advances – “he likes to kiss women” – she found bullets scattered on her desk and was threatened with the man’s purported Mafia connections.

“He said, ‘I’ll get the Mafia to kill you,’ ” she told The News last week. “They [MSG] took the threats seriously. They got detectives to walk me around the building.”

But her boss told her it was up to her to demand that the man be fired.

“I said, ‘No, you tell the Mafia guy he’s fired.’ Are you kidding? He knew where I work, where I live and how to get me,” she said. “They never fired him.”

Other women said their careers suffered because they complained.

Verity Lund, 58, a technician with Cablevision, Madison Square Garden’s parent company, told in a lawsuit how she was assaulted by male co-worker Lawson Fisher.

Though she was told not to come to work, her attacker – who was later found guilty of assault – went unchallenged until cops arrested him.

Fisher was eventually fired, but Lund said in court papers that her work hours also were severely cut – and her income dropped by 75%. Managers admitted that they took her complaint into consideration when they slashed her shifts, she claimed in legal papers. The lawsuit was settled out of court last year.

Garden spokesman Barry Watkins cited the settlement, adding, “We have signed a confidentiality clause.”

Two former workers at MSG Network said they complained about letters and e-mails from co-worker Anthony Harris – now an associate director.

Danielle Puma, 32, said she received an offensive letter from him several years ago.

“We worked in a male industry,” she said. “But his letter was offensive enough that I brought it to my boss’ attention. They handled it well. I assume he was spoken to; he apologized.”

Watkins said the situation had been dealt with effectively, and declined additional comment.

Another former colleague of Harris’, who asked not to be named, said she received a barrage of provocative and frightening e-mails from him – anonymously.

“He knew who I was, where I worked, what I looked like, but I had no idea who was sending these e-mails,” she said.

“They were like, ‘You are really pretty.'”

A supervisor who read the missives said, “The e-mails were spooky.”

Management traced the messages to Harris, according to the woman and a former superior.

“If I wanted to have him reprimanded or prosecuted, they would stand behind me,” the woman said. “I was uncomfortable with that responsibility. I didn’t want to be responsible for him losing his job.”

Reached Friday, Harris said, “I’m not going to comment on that. It happened a long time ago. It’s not a matter that affected my job and I’m moving on.”

In yet another incident, more than one worker described the behavior of a fellow employee while they all attended a recent sexual harassment seminar.

“He kept telling the woman running the session, ‘You have lovely hair, you have on a lovely skirt,'” said one. “He was harassing the woman who was running the harassment class.”

Cathy Harris says sexual harassment was part of the job.

“I asked one day, ‘Why doesn’t anybody say anything?'” said the former supervisor in Madison Square Garden’s food and merchandise department. “I was told, ‘Because nothing ever changes.’ People were scared to lose their jobs.”

Harris, 31, was fired in October, after she complained.

Officially, she said, she was dismissed after receiving three reports criticizing her work.

But, Harris claimed, before the complaints “every review was good. I had no problems. Then suddenly I was being criticized for things like being too friendly with other employees.”

She said the harassment began as soon as she began working at the Garden four years ago, but she first complained last April.

She said she decided enough was enough when a manager came into a Garden bar as she was closing up after an event.

“He came in drunk as a skunk and pushed me into a back room, turned off the light and said, ‘Come on, let’s have a beer.’ I turned the light back on, left and complained to human resources.”

Harris said that about four months later, officials “said they found nothing.”

She said she later complained about another manager who made comments about her backside and weight, and asked her to invite him home.

Harris said she is presently obtaining legal advice on her options.

Garden spokesman Barry Watkins said, “While we typically don’t comment on charges leveled by disgruntled former employees, in this case we will say that the charges are categorically untrue and without merit.”

“Sexual harassment is conduct of a sexual nature which interferes with the ability of a person to do his or her job,” said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney in the New York office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Grossman said sexually offensive conduct includes touching, verbal comments of a flattering or unflattering nature, showing something to someone – like pornography – or making gestures, such as grabbing one’s crotch or licking one’s lips. “I could go on,” she said.

Anyone who feels they have been sexually harassed must file a complaint with the EEOC within 300 days – and has to do so before they can bring a lawsuit in federal court for claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After a complaint is filed, the EEOC conducts an investigation or tries to settle the matter. If a complaint is deemed meritless, Grossman said the EEOC will dismiss it and issue a “right-to-sue letter.” If a complaint is found to have merit, EEOC lawyers push for a settlement, litigate it themselves or issue a right-to-sue letter.

Harassment complaints can also be filed in state court without going to the EEOC first. The statute of limitations under the state Human Rights Law is three years.

 

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