Mayor Ken Cockayne circulated compromising photos of council member Jodi Zils Gagne after her husband gave a political rival airtime on his small internet radio station, an investigative report concludes.
Cockayne then tried to thwart a city investigation after Zils Gagne complained to the personnel director of sexual harassment, and later threatened in a text message to Zils Gagne’s husband that “you and Jodi will pay,” according to the city-commissioned report by an independent attorney. Cockayne and Zils Gagne are second cousins.
Cockayne’s attorney released a statement Thursday denying the accusations and attacking the report as biased, inaccurate and stemming from “political mud-slinging.”
The report’s findings, which were released Thursday, cap a bitter monthslong feud between Cockayne and Zils Gagne, both Republicans running for re-election Nov. 7.
The battle has divided their families and shaken the local Republican Party. It also triggered a social media war, with both sides trading insults on Facebook. Those exchanges culminated in late September when someone publicly posted compromising “online profiles” of Zils Gagne and her husband, according to the report.
The report redacts the type of profiles or websites involved; the city says the topic would violate privacy and be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”
Zils Gagne’s husband had previously used a printout of a profile by Cockayne against him, the report said.
“The leaks and foul play has (sic) affected both camps, as Gagne of course leaked a compromising profile of Cockayne to his mother and fiancée, and persons unknown circulated an unattributed ‘hit piece’ the past weekend by U.S. mail,” the report says.
Attorney Michael Rose, who conducted a six-week investigation, wrote: “I conclude that Mayor Cockayne was either complicit in, knew of, or participated in the spreading of rumors and possibly the profiles of Zils Gagne. This conclusion is based on his admission that ‘my family has stopped [spreading rumors],’ and that he admitted to ‘deleting everything.’”
The city council voted 5-0 in August to consult with Rose, who investigated a 2016 harassment complaint against Cockayne.
After potentially embarrassing materials were posted on the Facebook page “Bristol Talks” in late September, Zils Gagne and her husband, Stephen Gagne, met at police headquarters with Cockayne, his mother and his sister, according to Rose’s report. Police tried to mediate the feud, but the social media battles by friends of both sides have continued.
Cockayne was not taking questions Thursday, but has insisted since mid-summer that the entire matter is a family disagreement that has been exploited by Democrats, primarily Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, his challenger in the Nov. 7 election.
When the city council voted to censure him Monday night, however, the vote was bipartisan.
Republicans Anthony D’Amato and David Mills joined their three Democratic colleagues in condemning Cockayne for sexual harassment and “dishonesty.” The council concluded — as it did before a similar censure vote against Cocakyne last fall — that it has no authority to suspend, remove or otherwise punish a mayor.
On Thursday, neither Mills nor D’Amato would directly answer whether they’re still supporting Cockayne in the election.
The situation is problematic for city government, said Mills, who recommended that whoever wins in November should amend the charter to provide stiffer penalties for misconduct by a mayor or council member.
Rose concluded that Cockayne became angry after Stephen Gagne invited Zoppo-Sassu on his Bristol Beat radio station last November. She and Cockayne have been adversaries for years, and he narrowly beat her in the 2015 mayoral race.
“Why are you giving her the spotlight? … You are legitimizing her. She’s no one,” Cockayne complained in texts to Gagne, according to Rose’s report.
Rose determined that Cockayne punished Gagne by delaying his request to air Bristol city council meetings. Needlessly holding back his approval — and at one point trying to charge the station for access to public information — may have violated Gagne’s First Amendment rights, Rose wrote.
Rose also concluded that Cockayne tried to block his investigation by urging Zils Gagne to drop the matter after the council began looking into it.
Zils Gagne did not comment Thursday. She has been directing media questions to her attorney since coming under fire last week; she is an attorney and faces a lawsuit accusing her of mishandling a 91-year-old man's property while she was his conservator. A probate judge removed her from that post after determining she’d lent up to $110,000 of the man’s money to her husband’s radio station without advising the court.
Zils Gagne has blamed Cockayne and his supporters for publicizing news of the lawsuit, saying it was an attempt to smear her reputation before the election.