Gov. Ned Lamont poses for a picture with Av Harris during a visit to the Department of Public Health

Lamont Challenges Whistleblower Protections of Former DPH Spokesman, Av Harris

Av Harris tells CT Examiner that he fully believes he did the right thing when he tried to blow the whistle on what he saw as possible illegal interference in a Bridgeport murder case by the commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Health, where he served as media spokesman and legislative director until the end of last year.

But less than 48 hours after he alerted the Office of Gov. Ned Lamont about his concerns, he said, he was out of a job.

A former journalist and veteran political operative perhaps best known for his role as spokesman for Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, Harris was fired on Dec. 31, 2020 by then-Commissioner Deidre Gifford, after being admonished for notifying the governor’s office about the issue instead of his direct supervisor. 

Harris sued to keep his job.

In documents filed recently as the case winds its way through Hartford Superior Court, Lamont’s office has sought to have the suit dismissed, arguing that Harris has no protection under state whistleblower laws.  

Harris is basing his legal claim on a provision in state law making it illegal for any employer to “discharge, discipline, or otherwise penalize an employee because the employee … reports a violation or a suspected violation of federal or state law or regulation, or municipal ordinance or regulation.”

In a statement, Harris claimed that his firing by Gifford violated a law designed to protect whistleblowers. 

He calls the dismissal  “unjust” and said it caused his family “real financial harm during the ongoing pandemic.”

Harris warned that “the real victims here are the taxpayers of Connecticut,” and that his firing would have “a chilling effect on every other state employee who may also witness wrongdoing and feel compelled to report it.”

In court filings, lawyers representing the Office of the Governor are arguing instead that Harris is not protected by whistleblower laws, because the illegal or suspected illegal activities he was concerned about had not yet taken place. They also raised a claim that because Harris notified lawyers in the Governor’s office about his concerns, those “attorney-client” communications are confidential and cannot be used as evidence to present his case.  

“There is clearly an attorney-client relationship between the Office of the Governor and DPH in this circumstance,” Assistant Attorneys General Jennifer Bennett and Josephine Graff wrote in a Sept. 1 document related to the state’s motion to dismiss the case. “The Commissioner of DPH is appointed by and reports to the Governor. The Governor is head of the Executive Branch and its agencies. It would be an absurd result that there is no attorney-client privilege between attorneys for the head of the Executive Branch and the agencies below it who are statutorily commissioned to carry out the Governor’s executive functions.”

Rebutting those claims, lawyers representing Harris, Irene Bassock and Richard Hayber, replied in a filing that “In Connecticut, the attorney-client privilege does not protect [Harris’] report of wrongdoing to the Office of the Governor. [Harris] reported illegal activity to an attorney and a non-attorney who were in a position of power to stop that activity and these reports are simply not privileged attorney-client communications.”

Harris had initially reached out to Lamont’s Chief of Staff, Paul Mounds, about the possibility of illegalities. When he couldn’t reach Mounds, he called Doug Dalena, deputy general counsel for the Governor.

Harris’ lawyers also rebutted claims that an illegal act must first occur in order for whistleblower protections to apply.

“An employee who waited for the employer to commit the illegal act would be exposing the public to the harm caused by the employer’s act,” Bassock and Hayber wrote. “An employer, for example, who planned to pollute a river, would have to first pollute the river and harm the public. It could not have been the intention of the legislature to have employees wait until the crime was committed before blowing the whistle.”

Lamont’s spokesman, Max Reiss, declined to comment on the case Wednesday, as did the Office of the Attorney General.

Both sides in the case are now awaiting a judge’s ruling on the Lamont administration’s motion for dismissal. 

A timeline leading up to the Harris’ firing

Claims made in documents filed with the court outline the following timeline of Harris’ firing: 

On Dec. 29, 2020, Harris was instructed by his supervisor at the Department of Public Health to call city officials that Harris knew in Bridgeport to obtain police information regarding a sports bar, Mangoz, that the department planned to fine $10,000 for COVID-19-related violations.

The impetus for the planned order was a double-homicide at the bar on Dec. 20.

Harris claims he was told to implore city officials to ask police officers investigating the killings to provide statements to the state health department about an excessive number of patrons in the bar that night, including many who were unmasked, in violation of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Harris claims he immediately had doubts about the legality of that request, fearing that such a call might be considered interference with the ongoing criminal investigation.

He also doubted the department’s authority to issue a fine to the bar, given that agency regulations require the department to determine first that a municipality — in this case Bridgeport — had failed to adequately enforce the COVID-19 restrictions.

According to Harris, after being unable to reach lawyers in his department, the Governor’s legal counsel he subsequently contacted told him to take no further action in regard to reaching out to Bridgeport officials. 

Later the same afternoon, Harris claims that he was called to a meeting with Gifford and departmental Chief of Staff Lita Orefice, who both admonished Harris for escalating his legal concerns to the Governor’s Office.

Harris contends he was following a chain-of-command protocol established by the Governor’s Office, and that he had routinely done so in the past without issue.

Harris claims he was told that it was also improper for him to first contact health department lawyers, and that he should have initially directed his concerns to Orefice, his supervisor.

“This makes it hard for us to trust you with sensitive information because we don’t know who you are calling,” Harris quotes Gifford in the meeting.

Two days later, Harris received a termination letter from Gifford informing him that his appointed position was being concluded and that he would be placed on paid leave until Jan. 14.

That same day, New Year’s Eve, the department issued a $10,000 fine against the bar, accompanied by a joint announcement issued by Bridgeport and the State that included quotes from Gifford, Ganim and Bridgeport Police Chief Rebeca Garcia.

As an executive assistant, a position commonly known as a “political appointee,” Harris had no recourse to his firing through procedures available to civil service employees.

“I never set out to be a whistleblower,” Harris said. “For nearly two years, I was a good soldier and a team player for the Lamont administration. I have always tried to operate with the highest degree of professionalism and integrity, and I have tried to be a resource for anyone who needed help, no matter who they are or where they come from.”

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