A former Hartford City Council aide has filed a complaint with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities accusing City Council President Thomas “TJ” Clarke II, City Clerk John Bazzano and Olga Colon, another council assistant, of sexual harassment and discrimination.
The former aide charged that Clarke, Bazzano, and Colon discriminated against her because she is white. Clarke is black, Bazzano is white and Colon is Hispanic.
Clarke, 36, said in a written statement Tuesday that he never intended to offend the employee, but that he was concerned about “political agendas at work.”
“Myself, Olga Colon and John Bazzano are subject to a CHRO complaint by a former city employee involving labor and personnel matters. I find the timing of this complaint suspicious, and am concerned that there may be political agendas at work,” Clarke said.
“That said, it was never my intention to upset, offend, or make anyone uncomfortable and to that extent that I might have done so, I apologize profusely. I look forward to a full and transparent exploration of this issue and I pledge my full cooperation.”
He declined further comment.
Mayor Luke Bronin said Tuesday night that Clarke should not be able to remain in his position.
“The behavior detailed in this complaint is inexcusable from a person in a position of authority,” Bronin said. “Based on the text messages included in this complaint, I do not believe that Council President Clarke can continue to serve in a position of leadership in the city of Hartford.”
Colon did not respond to requests for comment, and Bazzano referred questions to the city’s corporation counsel, Howard Rifkin, who declined to comment.
In the complaint, filed Dec. 13 and forwarded to the city, the aide said Clarke sent her numerous inappropriate text messages commenting on her appearance and inquiring about her relationship status.
The Courant is not identifying the former employee.
“Sometime in June 2016, Council President Clarke discovered I had a boyfriend,” she wrote. “He began to make inappropriate sexual comments or make references to my boyfriend’s sexual prowess.”
In one text message, sent as she was about to leave for vacation, Clarke wrote to the aide: “OK Smart Ass! Have fun on your trip. Don’t slip up and send me any see thru bikini pics.”
In another, the aide asks how to pay for framing services for a city hall citation. Clarke responds in a text: “With your good looks,” according to the complaint.
During another conversation, Clarke made a sexually charged comment about the aide and her boyfriend, and added: “I could respond to that but I do not want to incriminate myself. … Say one thing then the comment is blasted everywhere.”
When the employee moved to a new apartment in June 2016, she said Clarke asked to stop by.
“Council President Clarke mentioned he knew someone who lived there and that he wanted to come over and see my apartment,” she wrote. “I ignored this comment.”
At one point, the aide said, she asked Clarke about transferring to another department. “He told me that I probably wouldn’t get the job because there are a lot of white people in that office already,” she wrote.
On several occasions, the aide said, Colon would inquire about her personal life and romantic status. Colon “would often comment on my work attire and ask where I was going and with whom depending on my dress,” she wrote in the complaint.
“The comments made me feel uncomfortable and sexualized what I believed to be work-appropriate attire,” she said.
In November 2016, the aide wrote, Bazzano “told me that Ms. Colon started a rumor that he and I were sleeping together. … He did not report this harassment to Human Resources.”
The aide acknowledged that she also did not report the comments to the city’s human resources office because Bazzano and Clarke were her supervisors.
“Due to my position as a council aide, I could have been terminated at any time and I was afraid to correct [Clarke’s] behavior because of the significant power imbalance between us,” she wrote, adding: “I did not believe Human Resources would provide a viable solution because of the politically charged nature of our positions.”
The aide began working for the city in January 2016 and resigned in June 2017. Colon was an assistant for the council from January to October of 2016.
City officials said they have hired an attorney to represent Clarke, Bazzano and Colon.
DeVaughn Ward, a lawyer for the former aide, said his client initially hesitated to bring a complaint because of the “power dynamic” between her and the three city officials.
“The complaint speaks for itself, the alleged victim in this case struggled for a very long time with whether or not to bring these allegations to light and ultimately decided to do that,” he said Tuesday.
“It’s important to note that when you have an organization of 1,500 employees and you don’t have somebody who is empowered ... situations like this are bound to happen. You can only imagine, if this is at the highest level, what kind of culture is permeated throughout the rest of the organization.”
In a joint statement, Council Majority Leader Julio Concepcion, Minority Leader Wildaliz Bermudez, Assistant Majority Leader John Gale and Councilwoman Glendowlyn Thames said Tuesday that they were “shocked, disturbed and extremely disappointed” after hearing of the complaint.
“The egregious conduct described, and evidence presented to date, reflect behavior we do not condone,” the council members said. “In the coming days we are committed to a discussion with our colleagues about next steps, and how we demand accountability and restore integrity to the court of common council.”
The CHRO complaint comes on the heels of another controversy in city hall, revealed earlier this month.
Hartford employee Kenneth Blue accused Kelly Kirkley-Bey, an aide to Councilwoman rJo Winch, of sexual assault, claims that were deemed credible by a third-party investigator hired by the city. Rifkin, the city’s corporation counsel, in June recommended to both Clarke and Winch that Kirkley-Bey be fired.
As of this week, Kirkley-Bey is still employed by the city.