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MSG: The Den of Vice & Prosties?

NYC- Amea Bunting [pictured] didn’t expect to see her Madison Square Garden bosses at an after-work get-together at a Chelsea Bar on a cold February night in 2004.

But there they were, she says – Rangers marketing VP John Rosasco and PR man Jason Vogel – asking members of the Rangers City Skaters to participate in “threesomes” and encouraging them to kiss each other.

“They asked the girls if they could kiss us and to make out with each other,” Bunting told the Daily News last week. “Over and over they asked me. They were trying to set up players with girls. … They basically made you feel like a prostitute.”

A month after Courtney Prince was fired after warning the Rangers City Skaters to be wary of the sexual advances of certain bosses, MSG executives were still making suggestive remarks and propositions to members of the skate team, Prince’s former teammate says.

Bunting, a 21-year-old former member of the Rangers’ on-ice cheerleading squad who is now a student at Westchester County Community College, described an atmosphere of sexual harassment and retaliation similar to the one detailed in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and federal lawsuit filed against MSG in 2004 by Prince, the former captain of the team.

MSG denies Bunting’s account; three of Bunting’s and Prince’s former teammates who would speak only on condition of anonymity called the News this week and described Prince as a foul-mouthed, manipulative and mean-spirited team leader. The women also said Rangers executives Vogel and Ryan Halkett, both defendants in Prince’s lawsuit, treated them professionally and respectfully. They praised Rosasco, who is not a defendant in the case.

“These dated allegations are gross distortions and mischaracterizations that unfairly attack MSG employees,” MSG said in a statement released through spokesman Barry Watkins. “As we have stated, the court granted MSG’s motion to dismiss all claims of sexual harassment against MSG and its employees. We are extremely confident that MSG and its employees will be completely vindicated when the legal process has been completed.”

Actually, two of Prince’s claims – retaliation by the Garden and assault and battery by Vogel – are pending. Others are awaiting a ruling on a second motion to dismiss. In August 2004, the EEOC recommended a settlement that would have required the Garden to implement sexual harassment training, adopt an anti-discrimination policy and pay Prince up to $800,000 in lost salary, legal fees and compensatory damages.

Watkins also provided the News with statements from three other skaters taken in 2004 after interviews with Garden lawyers that describe Prince as bossy, cruel and manipulative. The statements, all containing similar language, say she encouraged the skaters to use diet pills, hair pieces and bra pads, and made cruel statements about their bodies.

“I … became a victim of Courtney’s wrath,” former skater Heather Gornall says in one of the statements provided by Watkins. “(One skater) told me that Courtney said I gave her ‘cooties.’ Courtney regularly would exclude me from conversations. She would often interrupt me while I was speaking. … Courtney often patronized me and made me feel stupid for asking questions.”

According to Prince, she urged the girls to maintain or improve their physical appearance at the direction of the Garden bosses. And Bunting, who says she was interviewed six times by Garden lawyers after Prince was fired but never was offered a statement to sign, told the News she never heard complaints about Prince from the skaters and corroborated Prince’s claims that the girls were expected to socialize with executives and guests of the Garden at after-hours gatherings, usually at bars. She says they were subjected to sexual comments and overtures both in the workplace and outside it.

Prince told the News earlier this month in her first extended interview about her lawsuit that Garden bosses made arrangements for the skaters to “have drinks with the bosses and guests” at bars as part of their job requirements; ignored her complaints that a guest of the Garden, a professional golfer, rubbed his sexually aroused body against her at a team celebration; purchased alcohol for underage skaters; and spread false rumors about her after she warned other skaters not to be alone with certain bosses.

“Everything Courtney says is 100% true,” Bunting told the News, saying she felt “trapped” at the Chelsea bar, with one of the men sitting next to her and another leaning on her shoulders. “I said ‘I don’t want to be bothered, leave me alone,'” she says she told the men, one of whom she says was a sports reporter covering the team.

Prince described a similar scene in a West Village bar in which she says Vogel and a reporter for The New York Times tried to kiss her and proposed she join them in a “threesome” in the bar’s restroom. She said she fled the bar as Vogel followed her, yelling, “Let’s get a hotel.”

According to Bunting, the pressure to socialize with the bosses didn’t let up even after Prince was fired, and she says she felt if she refused she would be jeopardizing her job.

“If they show up,” she said of certain bosses, “you have to put on a show that everything is okay. We really felt pressure.”

Bunting described other incidents in which she says she was harassed by Halkett, the Garden’s director of event production and the man in charge of the skaters, including at an event in which Garden chief Jim Dolan’s band was performing. Halkett asked her to accompany him, then unexpectedly stopped off for dinner. “He started asking me personal questions. Basically he asked me if I was a virgin and what kind of sex I liked, how many people I slept with,” Bunting says. “He’s a married man. I thought it was disgusting.”

Bunting says Halkett basically “portrayed me as a prostitute” to other guests at the event. “It was, ‘Oh, this is one of the Ranger girls – she’s with me.'”

The harassment occurred in the office, too, according to Bunting. “He would go into detail about other women on the team,” she says, including making comments about the size of their breasts. “I didn’t know who to speak to about it.”

On Dec. 11, 2003, five weeks before Prince was fired by the Garden, five of the skaters, including Prince and Bunting, were told to attend a Dave Matthews concert with Garden honchos and their guests, all men. Both Prince and Bunting say they were told not to tell the other girls about the invitation.

“We were picked like prostitutes,” Bunting says. “We were just sitting there like trophies.”

When former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders filed her sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden last month, MSG fired back with a fury, painting her as a gold digger who tried to extort millions from the company.

The Garden also launched a campaign in recent weeks to discredit the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Courtney Prince, the former Rangers City Skater captain, against MSG in 2004. Garden spokesman Barry Watkins provided the Daily News with statements from three other skaters on the now-defunct squad that portray Prince as obsessed with sex, her body and her teammates’ physical flaws. The statements, often using identical language, also say she was manipulative, insulting and encouraged her teammates to use diet pills and pad their bras.

Three other skaters contacted the Daily News to make similar statements about Prince, but would speak only on condition of anonymity.

Prince says many of the complaints about her from former teammates are actually about orders she passed from management to the skaters. Garden executives, she says, were preoccupied with smutty sex appeal, and they told her to pump up the skaters’ “do-ability.”

The Rangers City Skaters rules and regulations for the 2003-04 season appeared to have come from the top, not from a low-level supervisor like Prince, who was paid $40 a game extra to enforce the rules. A section entitled “Attitude” states: “To be frank, it is not about what you want; it is about what the Madison Square Garden executives ask for. Whatever they ask for, they will receive. … resistance on your part will not be tolerated. Please have a positive attitude.”

The statements provided by Watkins, meanwhile, don’t address the allegations in Prince’s federal lawsuit – that she was fired after she told her superiors she was being sexually harassed and warned other skaters about executives who sexually harassed her. One of the skaters took great pains to remain neutral. “In no way should these statements be used to support or hinder the claim that MSG employees sexually harassed Courtney, a situation about which I have no first-hand knowledge,” former skater Mary Ellen Loukas wrote.

Another skater sent supportive E-mails to Prince two months before she signed a statement ripping her former teammate: “I need you to know that I support you fully and am proud of you for taking action on the fact that you were fired for no reason. What MSG did to you was wrong and the way they are playing right now is gross.”

A few weeks later, the same skater said an MSG representative tried to put words in her mouth while preparing her statement: “He didn’t really care about my thoughts about things, he just tried to turn everything I said into a different sort of context to fit what he wanted,” she said in an E-mail. “He is NOT a good man and made me remember how much I dislike lawyers.”

According to Amea Bunting, who says she, too, was sexually harassed by Garden bosses, she was interviewed six times by Garden lawyers after Prince was fired but was not asked to sign a statement. “They were trying to get anything they could against her,” Bunting says.

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