B  U  F  F  A  L  O      N  E  W  S      buffalonews.com

05/09/09 07:12 AM

Toll taker suspended in probe of threats

Thruway employee faces job loss

By Tom Precious

ALBANY — The effort started out as a plan, albeit an unusual one, for David Zelonis to save his state job. Turns out that effort could end up costing him his career.

Zelonis, a Grand Island toll collector, was suspended from his job without pay Friday while agency officials prepare to terminate him for allegedly sending intimidating e-mail threats against an anti-toll activist.

Zelonis, 52, allegedly sent a series of harassing e-mails to Rus Thompson, who has led a push to do away with tolls on the island and whose efforts Zelonis apparently believed could have cost him his job.

Just days after his arraignment on charges related to the incident, Zelonis was slapped Friday with a 30-day suspension. And, Donna Luh, a Thruway Authority board member from Western New York, said, “We will be seeking termination of his employment.”

Luh said Zelonis engaged in misconduct related to his job with the agency. “After an internal investigation, we decided to take these actions,” she said.

“Thruway users have a right not to be treated with disrespect or harassment. I think any of us would appreciate that. We should take a firm stand on that out of respect for our users,” she added.

Luh declined to provide specific information about what the internal investigation uncovered, except to say that it was enough to result in Zelonis’ suspension and, very likely, his future firing.

The agency recently said its probe would look into whether any state computers were used or if the e-mails came during Zelonis’ work hours. Officials also wanted to find out how Zelonis may have obtained information about Thompson’s E-ZPass account. “We feel that we have enough that this is the right path to take,” she said.

A man answering the phone at Zelonis’ home Friday afternoon hung up on a reporter. Calls to his cell phone were not returned.

Zelonis faces a misdemeanor charge of aggravated harassment. He was arraigned in Grand Island Town Court earlier this week on the charges. He has also been ordered to stay away from Thompson.

The Thruway worker recently told a sheriff’s lieutenant and later The Buffalo News that he feared losing his job—he is low on the seniority ladder — if Thompson’s campaign to get rid of the bridge tolls was successful.

“He said we were overpaid, and he said we shouldn’t be there,” Zelonis recently told The News of Thompson’s campaign.

“What can I say? You are innocent until you are proven guilty,” said Ron Kozak, the Teamsters Local 72 shop steward for Buffalo-area toll collectors. He said the union is helping Zelonis with the situation involving his Thruway job, but he declined further comment.

Anonymous and harassing e-mails were sent to Thompson for nearly two years. “WHERE OH WHERE IS JOHN RUS THOMPSON?” one e-mail said in 2008. “LITTLE JOHNNY’S SLEEPING IN THE GRAVEYARD. . . ”

At least one e-mail made clear that Zelonis knew Thompson’s E-ZPass had been revoked for speeding through a toll booth. “Your E-ZPass tag was revoked for speeding through the lanes. Maybe the public should be made aware just how irresponsible you are,” the e-mail said.

The e-mails to Thompson were traced to Zelonis, who made $21 an hour at the Thruway job. He made $45,532 last year with the Thruway agency.

Thompson said it took the Thruway Authority being humiliated before it moved against the toll collector. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. So now they’re starting to take some responsibility for what their employees are doing,” Thompson said. He said he had a simple way for the Thruway to erase the embarrassment: “Get rid of the tolls.”

Citing state privacy laws, Thruway officials said they were restrained from providing any details about the findings against Zelonis.

Kimberly Chupa, a Thruway spokeswoman, said state civil service law permits the 30-day suspension. The steps to terminate Zelonis include a hearing officer being appointed to consider the charges and any defense; Zelonis will have eight days to answer agency charges against him.

One anonymous e-mail to Thompson made it clear the sender knew where the activist lived. “Fire on Tracey Lane,” a February 2008 e-mail stated.

Others carried a similar theme that Thompson saw as threatening. “Saw your pic in the paper . . . Geez if I had only known you were there — oops no brakes.” Another stated, “Move off the island. Now. You are no longer welcome here.”

Zelonis was no stranger to the letters to the editor page of The Buffalo News, where he wrote to defend his work.

“You go to work every day and try to deal with verbal and sometimes physical abuse,” he wrote in 2007. “If you are lucky enough, you may be able to get a decent apartment or find a very inexpensive house to rent or buy, because your net pay is almost half of what you gross. Then you retire and will be very lucky if you live 10 to 15 years without contracting lung cancer or another work-related illness.”

Zelonis is due back in court June 17 for further proceedings.