Woodstock Foundation claims no systemic discrimination

By Mike Donoghue, Standard Correspondent

The Woodstock Foundation operates the Woodstock Inn and Resort, which exists to provide economic support for the Woodstock community and to provide financial support to Billings Farm & Museum. The operation also includes the Woodstock Country Club, the Saskadena Six Ski Area (formerly Suicide Six) and other entities.

The Woodstock Foundation trustees say a law firm hired for an independent investigation was unable to substantiate complaints about systemic discrimination against females or LGBTQ persons working at the Woodstock Inn and Billings Farm & Museum.

The trustees, through both a letter to employees and a separate legal filing this week, downplayed the employee allegations raised in a lawsuit filed against them in January and instead maintained there was misconduct by the three main players that sought to address the employee complaints. 

They also claim the primary whistleblower, Anna Berez, and the former Vice Chair of the Foundation Board, Salvatore Iannuzzi, had an “inappropriate personal relationship” — a claim that both vehemently deny.

Woodstock Foundation Chair James S. Sligar, in a three-page letter to employees, and the Foundation in a 21-page counterclaim filed in Vermont Superior Court in Woodstock, attack Iannuzzi, Berez and former Board Chair Ellen R.C. Pomeroy.

The trustees maintain Berez received improper, unapproved raises, bonuses, other benefits and favoritism, that Iannuzzi acted unprofessionally, and that he and/or Pomeroy either terminated or forced the resignations of four top managers at the resort.

While filing the counterclaim in court on Monday, the defendants did not directly respond to the 31-page lawsuit initially filed by Pomeroy and Iannuzzi on Jan. 20 or the amended complaint that added more defendants and claims last month.

A formal written answer to the civil lawsuit is not due until later this month from the trustees/defendants: Sligar, Michael D. Nolan, John T. Hallowell, Douglas R. Horne, David M. Simmons, William S. Moody, Gail Waddell and Angela K. Ardolic. Also named as defendants are The Woodstock Foundation Inc. and WRC Holdings LLC.

Before saying there was no basis for past and current employees to make claims of systemic discrimination, the defendants in the initial lawsuit went on the offensive.

Besides the claimed inappropriate personal relationship, they maintain their investigation found a major divide among employees. 

“A division appeared between those who were favored (generally Ms. Berez and her friends) and those who were not, with justified feelings of fear of intimidation and retaliation held by the unfavored,” Sligar’s letter noted.

The trustees also said that on Oct. 19, 2022, Iannuzzi sent out a notice that the leadership team would report to him directly and he would manage it until a new resort leader could be recruited. The trustees said without their authorization he began to sign documents using the title of President and General Manager of the Resort.

The trustees said the investigation revealed Iannuzzi would berate people and yell in the workplace. They claim that employees used the terms “tirade” and “rants” to describe his conduct. Iannuzzi denies those claims. 

According to the initial lawsuit, Iannuzzi, with the blessing of Pomeroy, began an internal investigation last year after hearing complaints about working conditions at the Woodstock Resort. It soon spread to the Billings Farm & Museum because of complaints filed by other employees. While investigating the whistleblower complaints, Iannuzzi alerted Horne and Hallowell, as trustees, about the issues, but they did nothing to address them, according to the initial lawsuit. Soon Pomeroy and Iannuzzi became the focus of a contrary independent review initiated by the other trustees using outside lawyers from New York City, records show.

“I am disappointed that certain of my fellow Board members have chosen to distract from longstanding management and leadership dysfunction at the Woodstock Foundation, the Resort, and Billings Farm & Museum by mischaracterizing the facts and failing to address their own failures,” Iannuzzi told the Vermont Standard.

“Tellingly, Jim Sligar’s letter spends nearly three pages maliciously smearing me with innuendo and worse, and ignoring the more than 40 employees who courageously came forward to make legitimate complaints about their working conditions, showing this board’s intention to sweep issues under the rug,” he said.

“As these board members’ own counsel has acknowledged to The Boston Globe, Ms. Pomeroy and I responded to real and disturbing employee complaints about management,’” Iannuzzi said.

“We look forward to the truth coming out through our lawsuit,” he said.

Berez had told the Vermont Standard after the lawsuit was filed in January that the trustees could make only one of two possible responses: admit there were major problems at the Foundation worksites or double down to make personal attacks against those that were trying to improve working conditions for all employees.

“They chose the latter,” Berez, the former Guest Experience Manager, said Monday when reached by phone in France. “You know you have won when they attack you personally.”

She said the trustees also appear to be using bullying tactics. She said Sligar made references in his employee letter to “Berez and her friends” giving the inference that they will be targeted.

Sligar, however, said in his letter to employees, “No one needs to be concerned about any sort of reprisal in connection with the report by outside counsel. Nothing of that kind is going to happen. We are going to use what we have learned from this process to do better in ensuring a fair and equitable environment for everyone.”

Most of the main complaints about discrimination against employees were written off in a single, 24-word sentence on the third page of the letter.

“The report did not find there to be any systemic discrimination or prejudice against female or LGBTQ persons within the Resort or Billings Farm,” Sligar wrote.

While the letter stated that there was no “systemic” discrimination found, the letter and counterclaim do not say whether the outside law firm found any kind of discrimination or prejudice at all against female or LGBTQ persons.

White River Junction lawyer Michael Hanley, who is part of the legal team representing Iannuzzi and Pomeroy, said Tuesday he questioned the portion of the findings of the report that the trustees have made public. The mistreatment or undervaluing of women and the mistreatment of protected classes were a major focus of the initial lawsuit.

One complaint centered on an employee in human resources that used the “n-word” and there was nobody willing to deal with the issue according to the initial lawsuit. 

Hanley said he was aware of at least six employees that provided highly critical comments of employment practices, including four employees that were interviewed at his Hartford office by the law firm from New York City that the Foundation hired to do an independent investigation.

Hanley is the lead local counsel for Pomeroy and Iannuzzi, while Andrew Levander and Elkan Abramowitz, who are with two prominent New York City law firms, also have been retained by the plaintiffs.

Pomeroy, who has been on the Board since its inception and served as Chair for almost 10 years, and Iannuzzi, who has been on the Board for 13 years and been Vice Chair for 7 years, initially filed their lawsuit following employee complaints about mismanagement. They later added another legal claim that they were improperly removed from the board and their offices.

Response to the counterclaims

The initial lawsuit and the subsequent volley of allegations has captivated the interest in the greater Woodstock area, Vermont and beyond.

 The Foundation operates the Woodstock Inn and Resort, which exists to provide economic support for the Woodstock community and to provide financial support to Billings Farm & Museum. The operation also includes the Woodstock Country Club, the Saskadena Six Ski Area (formerly Suicide Six) and other entities.

As a follow-up to the employee letter, Michelle Adams Somerville, the president and executive director of the Billings Farm & Museum announced Monday that there would be an employee meeting on Wednesday (after the Vermont Standard was headed to press). Among those expected to attend were Woodstock Foundation board members, including Sligar, the chair, Michael Nolan and Angela Ardolic.

Adams also said employees would be given a chance to meet individually with board members, who were visiting for the week and meeting the team. 

Norwich lawyer Geoffrey J. Vitt, on behalf of the Foundation, filed the counterclaim this week seeking punitive damages and legal fees. He also asked the superior court to order Pomeroy and Iannuzzi to reimburse the Foundation and the Holdings entity for “the improper raises, severance, gifts and other payments made at their direction or control to Anna Berez and to cover the cost of the investigation” by the outside law firm Provenzano, Granne & Bader of New York City.

Burlington lawyer Christopher Roy of Downs Rachlin Martin, who represents the individual trustee/defendants, said the internal report from that investigation was received Feb. 16 and was reviewed by the board before preparing its response. 

Iannuzzi said in an interview this week that claims about certain unapproved payments to Berez were false. He said certain expenditures were scheduled to be discussed at the annual meeting in November 2022, but the meeting got canceled when the defendant trustees opted to call their own meeting a few days before and voted to suspend Pomeroy and Iannuzzi. Pomeroy and Iannuzzi were never invited to the unauthorized meeting, Iannuzzi and Pomeroy have said.

Iannuzzi and Berez said their actions and comments were often taken out of context in an effort to support the counterclaims. They each cited a couple of examples, including an email that the trustees tried to use to support their claim of an inappropriate relationship.

The trustees cite an email from Berez to Iannuzzi in December 2021 in which she said “it was so wonderful to just have a cozy evening.”

Iannuzzi and Berez, in separate interviews this week, told the Standard he had shared some hard cider that was made from apples at his Woodstock home. He said they stopped by the house for about a half hour, and he went on to a board dinner that night. Berez said she went home and shared the cider with a friend by the fireplace that evening and later wrote the thank you note. She said it had been a stressful time at work doing inventory and it was a nice night off.

Berez said the trustees in the counterclaim falsely maintain that Iannuzzi provided her access to personnel files and that when they went through them some disciplinary notices were removed. She denied ever going through the human resource files. 

Iannuzzi and Berez bristled at the counterclaims that they had an inappropriate relationship. 

Iannuzzi, 69, said he has been happily married for more than 40 years. He denied late-night secret meet-ups with Berez. He said they did frequently have late-night phone calls about work conditions, but that was often after Berez had gotten off work and had gone home and they spoke after dinner. He said the phone calls were in the middle of the family den, where he handled his phone calls.

Berez said she is divorced from her wife and never thought her complaint would come down to her personal life. “My sexuality is nobody’s business.”

She classifies Iannuzzi as a friend. “He is a very good friend of mine. He is an important friend. There was nothing inappropriate,” she told the Standard.

She said she was shocked to learn that the trustees had shared private information, including her salary with the employees in the letter. Berez, now that it is public, said it was well known she was underpaid. She was paid $45,000, but got bumped initially to $50,000. It later was boosted to $59,000 to make it in line with another manager with similar responsibilities despite having less experience. 

Iannuzzi said he thought he had a good relationship with his fellow trustees.

“I considered them my friends before this started. I did not go out to get them,” he said.

Berez said since the lawsuit was initially filed in January, she has received messages from 15 to 20 women thanking her for speaking up about work conditions. The women reported they had the same experiences, she said.

Berez said she found it ironic that the trustees are claiming that Iannuzzi went rogue.

“What is more rogue than having a secret board meeting without the chair?” she asked.

Laurance S. Rockefeller and Mary French Rockefeller created the Foundation to provide philanthropic support to the Woodstock community and to own and operate the Billings Farm.  The Foundation and Billings Farm also partner with the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park in Woodstock on a variety of projects.