The former manager of communications and government relations for the state Department of Public Health filed a wrongful termination lawsuit Tuesday against the department, citing violations to whistleblower protections.
Av Harris, who had held the position since early 2019 and had served the state in other roles for nearly a decade, alleges that his rights were violated when his former employer fired him on New Year’s Eve.
He said the termination followed a series of events that unfolded two days prior when he was asked on Dec. 29 to assist DPH in reaching out to Bridgeport police for their cooperation in levying a $10,000 fine against a local sports bar for recent violations of COVID-19 restrictions.
The bar, Mango’z, was accused of hosting an illegal party on Dec. 20 that broke rules on social gatherings and that ultimately resulted in two people dead. The case was under investigation by police.
“I wanted to make sure we were absolutely sure on the law before I reached out,” Harris said, “because I was concerned in my reading of the executive order that we didn’t actually have the legal authority to issue the fine.”
Harris said he was also concerned that his actions could be perceived as interference in an active police investigation.
According to court documents, Harris first contacted attorneys within DPH to weigh in on the matter. When he didn’t hear back from them quickly, he then contacted lawyers within the governor’s office for clarification on legal authority for the planned fine.
“That was a logical place for me to go and get clarification, because they were the experts in what these executive orders said and how they should be interpreted,” Harris said.
DPH issued the fine in a joint announcement on Dec. 31 with Bridgeport city officials, Gov. Ned Lamont and DPH acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford.
On the same day, Harris was told by Gifford that he was being fired and that his last day of employment would be Jan. 14, just shy of five months from being eligible for retiree health care benefits after 10 years of state service.
Harris alleges his firing was retaliation for voicing his concerns to attorneys within state agencies about the way DPH planned to issue the fine against the sports bar.
“My rights were violated as a whistleblower, my actions were protected by law,” he said. “Whistleblower laws exist just to protect those lines of communication between employees who may witness something that they think is problematic and the ability to report that to any kind of public body.”
In an emailed statement, Christopher Stan of the department’s communications office said DPH would not comment on pending litigation.
Irene Bassock of West Hartford-based Empower Legal Group LLC represents Harris, who seeks monetary damages in lost wages and benefits exceeding $15,000. The suit also asks DPH to reinstate him to his former position or in a comparable position.
The state announced in December that it hired McDowell Communications Group for a three-month, $250,000 contract to handle COVID-19-related matters and that Harris would remain in his position to do non-pandemic media communications.
The DPH, perhaps the most visible state agency behind the governor’s office since the COVID-19 pandemic began, has had several personnel shake-ups in the past year.
Former Deputy Commissioner Susan Roman abruptly quit in March 2020. She wrote in her resignation letter that she had been subjected to “abusive behavior” and discrimination because she is white.
Lamont fired former DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell last May less than a year and a half after appointing her to the position. He replaced her with Gifford, commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, to lead the state’s pandemic response.
At the time, the governor said that the move was not related to Coleman-Mitchell’s job performance and that it was “a good time to make a change.” But in an August written statement, Coleman-Mitchell, who is Black, said she was a victim of racial discrimination.