One record released, but Stonington's Haberek still stalling
There is good and bad news contained in the finally released 2009 harassment complaint against Stonington First Selectman Ed Haberek. After a long legal struggle, the Board of Selectmen, with Mr. Haberek abstaining, recently voted 2-0 to comply with a Freedom of Information Commission order and release the complaint along with associated documents in the same file.
The good news for the first selectman is that the complaint contains no allegations of overt actions by Mr. Haberek that would constitute clear-cut workplace sexual harassment. Instead, what is documented is behavior that made the employee uncomfortable - stares, a degree of attention from the first selectman that the woman found excessive and unwanted, hugs that she considered awkward and inappropriate. Yet, there is no suggestion in the complaint that she ever made her concerns known to Mr. Haberek prior to the filing of the complaint, meaning he did not have the opportunity to correct the behavior she considered inappropriate.
The bad news for the town's chief elected official is that the documents also suggest that from the start his primary interest was protecting himself.
After learning of the complaint's existence, Day reporter Joe Wojtas requested a copy in the lead up to the 2013 election. The fact that Pawcatuck resident Tracy Swain was suing the first selectman and the town for his allegedly sending her explicit photos from a town-owned phone had made his conduct a campaign issue. Mr. Haberek admitted during a deposition of sending an explicit photo, though not of himself. That lawsuit remains pending.
So why did the Haberek administration fight so hard to keep the 2009 complaint secret? Apparently, he felt the allegations were potentially damaging.
The first selectman's official explanation in keeping the file closed was to protect the complainant, the contention being that others might be reluctant to complain if such matters can become public.
The problem with his argument is that secrecy would seem to be a far more intimidating prospect to someone making a complaint against a superior than transparency. The ability of a town official to bury a complaint from ever seeing the light of day does not strike us as encouraging employees to come forward.
Also, as the FOI hearing officer who reviewed this complaint noted, the town can redact the name of a complainant from the documents when released.
Information in the released file suggests Mr. Haberek's real motivation was self-interest. After learning of the complaint, his attorney sent a letter to the town requesting it be kept confidential. The letter warned that if either the complainant or then Administrative Services Director George Sylvestre disseminated the allegations, they would face a lawsuit.
In his notes, Mr. Sylvestre said that minutes after he informed the first selectman of the complaint, Mr. Haberek said he and his wife "would be initiating their personal lawsuit" in response. No suit was subsequently filed.
Intimidating the man charged with handling the complaint is not the action of a public official whose primary interest is fair treatment of the employee. The town never investigated and the woman, who left the employment of the town around the time she filed, ultimately withdrew it, satisfied, she testified at the FOI hearing, that she had sent Mr. Haberek her intended message.
The public should also view the complaint in the larger context of the atmosphere at Town Hall at the time. In April 2009, seven department heads, including Mr. Sylvestre and former Human Services Director Beth Stewart, filed a written complaint against Mr. Haberek, citing his "demeaning and intimidating behavior towards employees."
It is all enough to continue examining Mr. Haberek's conduct. It is why The Day, last February, sought access under FOI law to text messages and emails the first selectman sent from his town-issued BlackBerry in 2011 and 2012. Mr. Haberek dismisses the request as a "fishing expedition" and says reviewing the texts for exempt material prior to release will take up too much of his time.
We can't help but speculate that the true motivation for the failure to comply is again self-interest.
This time, don't drag things out. Just release the information, Mr. Haberek.
The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.
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