Hartford — While wiping away tears and trying to keep his voice steady, Alfred Mayo told his story Thursday evening, a story he's told many times in the last three months.
Sitting in Room 1C of the state legislative building, Mayo waited almost five hours to tell members of the legislative Black and Puerto Rican caucus about his experience last year at the state fire academy and his subsequent firing by New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, just days before he was scheduled to graduate in December.
"It's very hard for me to tell my story, even today," Mayo said, when his turn finally came. "It gets harder every time."
Even worse, he said, was the fact that Finizio in late February confidentially had offered to rehire Mayo, but two days ago, the mayor rescinded that offer, which had included back pay.
The caucus convened Thursday for the five-hour hearing on issues surrounding the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, an organization with which Mayo has filed two complaints: one against New London and one against the state fire academy. Both complaints allege that Mayo was discriminated against because he is black.
In September, Mayo began training at the state fire academy, the completion of which was a condition of his employment. Mayo was the first black firefighter hired by the city since 1978.
Mayo said Finizio chose to fire him because academy instructors told the mayor that Mayo had too much enthusiasm, made an obscene gesture at a camera, and wrote in wet cement. Mayo admitted to the first two, but denied the third.
Finizio could not be reached by phone for comment Thursday evening.
Two state safety officials, Jeffrey Morrissette, the state fire administrator, and Steve Spellman, chief of staff for the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, told the caucus that an ongoing investigation into the state fire academy has "identified some areas that need to be addressed."
Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, a member of the caucus, called for an investigation into the fire academy after hearing Mayo's story last month at an NAACP-sponsored town hall meeting.
In his testimony, Morrissette said the academy's purpose is to "observe and document all recruits" and that the academy is not in charge of terminating recruits.
Despite not attending graduation and despite being fired, Morrissette said Mayo already had passed his tests and is a certified level 2 firefighter.
But in his tearful testimony, Mayo told the panel that he has been unemployed since his firing and has fought for his job back.
"It's been really hard," Mayo said. "What happened at the academy is wrong and someone needs to oversee it."
Days into training, Mayo said, he went to put on his boots, only to find someone had put three to four inches of water in them. While others went out drinking, Mayo said, he stayed at the academy, making a firefighter hat for his daughter to wear at his graduation. Then, he said, he was accused of writing in the cement.
As for making an obscene gesture at a camera, Mayo said that was commonplace at the academy. He showed the caucus photos of other recruits in his class making the same gesture.
"I don't know where else to turn," Mayo said. "I'm asking for help."
In the gallery, Mayo's fiancée, Loretta Rivera, openly wept. Others looked close to tears.
"Isn't that awful?" one woman said to another.
Hewett said he blames the City of New London for Mayo's firing. He said the city used information from the academy in deciding whether to fire Mayo. While at the academy, Hewett said, Mayo was accused of things he didn't do.
One thing he did do, Hewett said, was get a speeding ticket while enrolled at the academy.
"How many firemen in this state do you think have a speeding ticket?" Hewett said.
Rep. Larry B. Butler, D-Waterbury, a caucus member, commended Mayo for speaking publicly.
"This is the kind of testimony we need to hear and the people from CHRO need to hear," he said.
Butler said the caucus would follow the investigation closely.
"It's premature for us to open a door to the investigation before it's run its course," he said. "Once the process is done, we will weigh in."
As Mayo prepared to leave, State Sen. Edwin Gomes, a Democrat from Bridgeport, wished him good luck.
"Seeing the last time (the New London fire department) hired a minority, it's easy to believe your story about (how) they move to keep people off of their fire department," Gomes said. "This has to wind up a success story because you have so much going for you to prove that these people did something wrong."