Mayor sued for sexual harassment; calls it political

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

The mayor is facing a civil lawsuit, accusing him of sexual harassment and retaliation against a city employee.

The lawsuit, which seeks more than $15,000 in damages, is the latest chapter in an issue that first arose last year when a report about an independent investigation into claims against sitting Mayor Ken Cockayne were released.

The mayor has called the suit political in an election year.

In the report about sexual harassment against a city employee, attorney Michael Rose said he did not think sexual harassment between the mayor and an unnamed employee occurred “per se.”

After the release of more explicit details from the report were provided to the council (which were not provided to the public and were not released following Freedom of Information requests), the entire council censured Cockayne, a Republican, based on those details. Cockayne subsequently issued a public apology regarding the findings of the Rose report.

In the new lawsuit filed June 5, Noelle Bates is named as the plaintiff and as the woman who brought up the original complaint against the mayor.

In the suit, Bates, who is being represented by Kate Matthews of Gold and Levy in Hartford, is identified as a legal secretary employed by the city.

The defendants, besides the mayor, include the City of Bristol; Diane Ferguson, the personnel director of the city; Edward Krawiecki, the city’s corporation counsel; and Cindy Cockayne Lamarre—the mayor’s sister and a member of the city’s zoning commission.

The suit claims that since April 2011, Bates has been “repeatedly subjected to a sexually hostile and discriminatory working environment.”

In a prepared statement, the mayor wrote:

“In November of 2015, a city employee made a complaint against me reaching back to 2011, prior to my time as mayor. An outside investigator investigated the claims and found no merit to the employee’s allegations of unlawful harassment and retaliation for her political affiliation. Although I had made remarks during the investigation that were perceived to be retaliatory, that was not my intent. Nevertheless, I apologized for them and maintained professional working relations. At all times during this investigation and to the present, the employee’s status has never been impacted; the employee remains fully employed, in the same position as prior to the complaint.

“This employee has been represented by Attorney Kate Matthews, the vice-chairperson of Bristol’s Democratic Town Committee, who is closely aligned with my opponent (Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, the Democratic candidate) in the upcoming November election.

“Not surprisingly, I have now been served with a lawsuit, filed by the vice chair of the Democratic Town Committee on behalf of the employee. Without going into detail, I can positively state that the suit is filled with mistruths.”

Cockayne said, “I believe this is politics at its worst. I want to ensure the public that I will vigorously defend this suit by telling the truth and I will continue to work hard for the city I love.

“I have been advised by counsel not to make any further statement due to the pending litigation.”

The harassment began, the suit says, after Bates filed a request for reimbursement for property damage to her vehicle that occurred on city property. Cockayne, who was not mayor at the time, was on the claims committee for the council. After the claim was approved, the suit says Cockayne made sure Bates knew he was responsible for it being approved. The suit also says Cockayne approached Bates to go for a walk at Birge Pond “just to talk.” The suit said Bates felt this meant that “spending time with (Cockayne) was a way to pay him back.” She declined Cockayne’s request, the suit says.

A “non-sexual’ friendship did develop, the suit says.

The suit later on notes that Cockayne’s implication that there was a consensual sexual relationship between he and Bates in his public apology was “erroneous.” The relationship was not sexual, the suit says.

But the suit claims Cockayne made sexual advances, requested favors, engaged in conduct of a sexual anature toward the plaintive and sexually harassing Bates.

The lengthy lawsuit includes a litany of charges against Cockayne, including showing Bates pornographic videos and putting his hands up her skirt.

The suit claims Cockayne told her, “I can sexually harass you and there is nothing you can do about it because I am elected official and not a city employee.”

The suit cites an exhaustive list of instances by other city officials where Bates says she was harassed and that served as retaliation for her complaints of sexual harassment. And the suit cites numerous instances where her complaints were rebuffed by officials such as Ferguson and Krawiecki.

The suit comes within a few months after Cockayne announced his intent to run for reelection in November and a few weeks after Ellen Zoppo-Sassu announced her intent to run against him again. The suit refers to Zoppo-Sassu not by name but as “a political opponent… (who Cockayne was) openly antagonistic.”

Matthews, Bates attorney, is the vice-chair of the Democratic Town Committee.

Matthews was asked if she wanted to provide a statement regarding the suit but didn’t reply.

Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.