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Battle Over Middletown Council Investigation Continues With Records Requests

Battle Over Middletown Council Investigation Continues With Records Requests
Middletown council members and Mayor Daniel Drew are locked in an ongoing battle over a council investigation that ended with a report from an attorney Aug. 13. (Shawn R. Beals / Hartford Courant)

While a gender discrimination investigation last week produced no evidence to prove claims made against Middletown Mayor Daniel Drew, a political battle over the process is continuing.

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Drew has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for legal bills and communication between city council members, city employees and the investigator, Attorney Margaret “Penny” Mason.

Councilman Gerald Daley, one of Drew’s closest allies on the council, has added two resolutions to the council’s Sept. 4 meeting agenda that, if approved, would make a formal demand of unredacted legal bills and other documentation from Mason.

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Daley also made a direct request to Mason for a trove of information, such as notes and communications between Mason and any of the 29 people she interviewed, which included the mayor, city attorneys and other top staff.

Union leaders and both the Democratic and Republican town committees are objecting to the release of the bills, which are assumed to include the names of 23 current and former city employees that spoke to Mason during the investigation.

Two council members are objecting to the release of emails and other records, arguing that they are confidential because of attorney-client privilege.

Daley said Tuesday that he isn’t looking for names, but wants to see supporting documentation that shows where Mason spent most of her time on the project, which cost the city $40,000.

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“I don’t care about the names,” Daley said. “At the very least we need to see the documentation that came with the bills. What we’ve seen so far raises more questions than it answers. Unless we get that information, I don’t see how we can put that [$40,000] to good use.”

Mason said during a presentation of her report on Aug. 13 that most of the people she interviewed were current or former city employees.

Most of them requested to be interviewed, she said, and many requested anonymity and meetings outside of city hall to avoid being seen meeting with her.

Daley said if people wanted to remain anonymous, he assumes the bills won’t include their names.

“My purpose is not to divulge names. That’s totally made up,” Daley said. “I never started out asking for the names. My most important concern is the detail, the supporting documentation for the bills.”

He said the common council was the client that paid for the investigation, and that he is entitled as an individual council member to any material that the three members of a subcommittee have seen.

Republican Minority Leader Sebastian Giuliano, Democratic Majority Leader Thomas Serra and Democratic Deputy Majority Leader Mary Bartolotta served on a council subcommittee tasked with selecting an investigator and coordinating the investigation.

Drew’s FOIA request is directed specifically at Bartolotta and Giuliano. Serra has missed several council meetings due to illness.

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Giuliano said he received the FOIA request but is asking that the city provide an attorney for legal guidance on how to respond. He said he believes an attorney-client relationship exists between the common council and Mason, so many of the documents requested would be protected from disclosure.

“Before I give a formal answer, I need legal advice,” Guiliano said. “The burden is on them to prove there is no attorney-client privilege. We entered into a retainer agreement with a law firm. On its face, this is an attorney-client relationship.”

He said Drew’s information request is designed to “dig into the identities of people who talked, and what’s the legitimate reason to do that?”

“Twenty-three people came forward, that alone ought to tell you not all is right in paradise here,” Giuliano said.

The Democratic town committee issued a statement on Saturday disagreeing “with any request to release the names of those individuals.”

“During Attny. Mason’s investigation 23 individuals levied complaints of unfair treatment and/or overhearing derogatory comments about women. Members in attendance felt overwhelmingly that the request for the release of names is inappropriate,” the statement said.

Drew was removed from the Democratic town committee in January after a takeover led by some newer members of the local party.

Republicans issued a similar statement this week that said people’s names should be protected from release to avoid the possibility of retaliation.

Drew said that he is not after names of people who spoke to the attorney.

“I’m not interested in employee names,” Drew said. “What I’m interested in is the degree to which Councilman Giuliano and Councilwoman Bartolotta inappropriately guided this investigation.”

Drew said he agrees with the opinion of Corporation Counsel Daniel Ryan that no attorney-client relationship exists between the council and the attorney. Mason was hired as an investigator, and her employment as an attorney doesn’t mean she was providing legal advice, Drew said. He also said the contract clearly shows an end of attorney-client privilege when the investigation is complete.

“I think they’re hiding something. They were clearly involved vastly more than they’ve let on,” Drew said. “They were meddling in it and they shouldn’t have been.”

Bartolotta and Giuliano have said they didn’t attempt to guide the investigation or its conclusions, and that Mason told the council she had no extensive communication with either of them about the contents of her investigation.

“We on the subcommittee have done exactly what we were expected to do, coordinate with the investigator,” Giuliano said. “We all wanted to be able to receive the report with the same eyes as the rest of the people on the council. The less detail we had, the better.”

AFSCME Local 466 President Christine Bourne, who represents the majority of city employees, said staff members are worried about having names of people who were interviewed released to city administrators and council members.

“Our employees were promised anonymity [and] they went and spoke to the investigator on their own,” Bourne said. “Now if their names are released, they’re worried about retaliation and retribution.”

Bourne said the number of city employees who spoke to Mason should put the city on notice “that there’s a systemic problem.”

“These are the city employees. These are their jobs, this is their livelihood, and some of them feel they’ve been treated unfairly,” Bourne said. “When [Mason] said to the council there’s 23 people, you should be concerned about that.”

Mason’s report said the investigation did not find evidence that Drew or his staff interfered in job description reviews or that they discriminated against people based on gender. The report said the people she interviewed felt they had been treated unfairly in the city’s hiring process.

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Management union President Geen Thazhampallath said members are only objecting to the release of names, not other documents related to the investigation.

“If someone can give me a rational reason to create a list of names, I’m happy to have that conversation, but nobody has given me any justification to create this list of people who were afraid of [being seen] talking to the investigator in the building,” Thazhampallath said.

He said there is a chance that the mayor’s battle with the council could have a serious effect on city employees.

“It takes a lot of courage for them to come forward and say something is wrong,” Thazhampallath said. “To have that process turned around against them is fundamentally wrong. They need to take a step back and think about the impact this will have not only on these employees but any employees coming forward in the future.”

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