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Former CT health commissioner says she was the target of discrimination by Lamont

Renee Coleman-Mitchell, whom Gov. Ned Lamont fired in May as public health commissioner in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is accusing the governor and his administration of discriminatory treatment, saying she was shut out of key policy discussions and dismissed from her job without cause.

Coleman-Mitchell, who is Black, said that before she was fired, she was supplanted by Connecticut’s chief operating officer and commissioner of administrative services, Josh Geballe, whom she described as a “young, white male” who “usurped” her authority and ran a “shadow department” with no public health experience. Geballe, 45, is a former senior IBM executive Lamont hired to modernize state government.

She said she waited months to make her discrimination accusation because she needed time to think. Coleman-Mitchell also referenced the national political conversation that has ensued about police brutality and the oppression of Black people since the death of George Floyd, which occurred two weeks after she was fired.

“Following more than two months of self-reflection and deep probing conversation with friends, mentors, and colleagues I now have clarity about what happened to me,” she said in a statement emailed Monday night to reporters by her lawyer, Eric R. Brown. “As our country faces a reckoning over race and white privilege, I am going to set the record straight in my own words.”

A spokesman for the Lamont administration declined to comment on the accusations, as did Geballe. Brown and Coleman-Mitchell could not be reached for additional comment Tuesday.

The statement made a claim of discrimination without promising a lawsuit or seeking redress, but it contained a link to a website titled “Redemption for Renee.” She said a promised letter of recommendation from the governor never was produced.

Lamont acknowledged in May that he fired Coleman-Mitchell but did not offer a detailed explanation for the ouster, saying only that there was a desire for closer coordination among state agencies as Connecticut approached its first phase of reopening businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coleman-Mitchell appeared at a news conference in March when the governor declared a public health emergency. Her tenure with the administration, which lasted just more than a year, included a public falling out with one of her top appointees, Deputy Commissioner Susan Roman, who alleged she was discriminated against by Coleman-Mitchell.

The former commissioner also had an awkward first summer in the job over the issue of whether to end nonmedical exemptions for child immunizations, sparking a controversy with the release of school-by-school vaccination data, then shrinking from the ensuing public debate.

Coleman-Mitchell, who has a master's degree in public health from Yale University and 25 years of experience as a public health administrator, annoyed Democratic lawmakers by refusing for months after the data was published to offer a professional opinion on whether the exemptions posed a public health threat.

The episode also appeared to undermine her relationship with the governor’s office but she remained in her post. The pandemic put the governor’s office in close daily contact with the health department, exposing morale and management problems at the agency.

Coleman-Mitchell said in her statement that she was the target of “discriminatory and biased treatment.” She described no specific incidents but rather an atmosphere.

“Over the last two months I have been able to acknowledge the insidious characteristics of discriminatory bias,” she said. “They are unwarranted cruelty of oppression perpetuated by intentional efforts to humiliate, erase, discredit, and defame. This historical practice of discrediting and erasing the noble contributions of Black leaders like myself is not acceptable and must end now.”

Overall, the Lamont administration has assembled a team that is racially diverse. In his first months as governor, Lamont named 14 new agency heads, half of whom were women. Six of the new appointees were Black or Hispanic. The new governor said diversity was important for two reasons.

“One, I want Connecticut to be able to look at my administration and see somebody just like them and say, ‘I could do that, too, someday.’ And just as importantly when I sit at the table, I want to have different points of view represented,” Lamont said then.

In her statement, Coleman-Mitchell also revisited the failure to adequately protect nursing home residents from the coronavirus, blaming the administration, not her department. She said her warnings were brushed aside. More than 8,700 nursing home residents have been sickened by COVID-19 in Connecticut, and 2,849 have died.

“It soon became apparent that I was delivering an uncomfortable message to the governor’s office they did not want to hear or address, and I was met with stiff opposition,” she said. “I was delayed and prohibited from implementing nursing home protocols that would have saved lives and as a result, the state’s response was disastrous.”

On April 27, Lamont ordered medical personnel with the National Guard to supplement DPH inspections of nursing homes.

Lamont has since ordered a sweeping review of the nursing home industry’s response to the pandemic, as well as the state’s actions to prevent and stop the spread of COVID-19 in those facilities. It is paying an outside firm, Mathematica, $450,000 to examine the availability of testing materials and protective equipment, staffing challenges, and communication and coordination, among other issues.

Coleman-Mitchell said in her statement that she fears she will be faulted in the investigation. She said she has not been contacted by Mathematica for an interview.

“I feel I may be implicated as the culprit behind the state’s failure,” she said. “I will not have it!”

The former commissioner said she was promised a severance package that included salary, benefits and a letter of recommendation. While employed with the state, she earned an annual salary of $200,000.

“I have decided that after all my decades of public health service cultivating my successful career as a Black woman acutely aware of how much more qualified I need to be just for consideration amongst my peers, I will not be invalidated at this point by those doing the administration’s bidding,” she said. “Nor will I be disposed of like trash. I merit recompense for my service to the state and the treatment I am enduring.”

Lamont tapped Deidre Gifford, the state’s commissioner of social services, to fill the top public health position on an interim basis while a search is conducted for a replacement. Gifford is a physician who has a Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology. By state law, the commissioner of public health must be a physician or have a Master of Public Health degree.

Jenna Carlesso is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2020 © The Connecticut Mirror.

jcarlesso@ctmirror.org

 

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