HARTFORD – A former state worker who sued after being fired in a high-profile whistleblower case involving the Governor’s office and state health officials last year has been paid a settlement of nearly $45,000 for his agreement not to appeal or talk about details of the case, which was dismissed in October by a Superior Court judge.
The settlement with former Department of Public Health spokesman Av Harris also bans him from seeking a state job for five years, but credits him with extra months of employment that will allow him to receive state medical benefits upon his retirement.
Attorney General William Tong, whose office defended the state, said Thursday in a statement sent by a spokesperson that “although the Court granted our motion to dismiss, by entering into the settlement Mr. Harris has given up his right to appeal that decision and to bring any additional related legal claims that he might have asserted.”
The 11-page agreement, released by Tong’s office through a state Freedom of Information request, asserts that the state “denies any unlawful conduct” and that the settlement is “for the sole purpose of avoiding further expense and inconvenience to all parties.”
The office of Gov. Ned Lamont did not respond to a request for comment.
Harris, 46, recently hired as communications director for the Concord Coalition in Washington, D.C., said in a statement that he commends Lamont’s office and Department of Public Health for “working with us to find a fair and just resolution to this case,” referring to his lawyers, Irene Bassock and Rick Hayber.
“I am happy to have this matter resolved so I can turn the page and move on,” he said, adding that “it was truly an honor to serve alongside some of the most dedicated, hard-working and conscientious public servants I have ever met,” at the health department.
The $45,000 includes back pay dating to when Harris was fired, and credits him with five extra months of employment in order to reach the 10-year threshold needed to qualify for state health insurance after retirement.
A former journalist and spokesman for Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, Harris was fired on Dec. 31, 2020 – two days after his actions in a Bridgeport case that he suspected may have involved illegal enforcement action by the state health department.
In the lawsuit filed to get his job back, Harris said he had been ordered by his supervisor to call Bridgeport officials in order to get police information about a city sports bar that DPH planned to fine $10,000 for a COVID-19-related violation.
The fine, which was eventually issued, stemmed from a large number of unmasked patrons who were in the bar on the night of Dec. 20, 2020 in violation of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions at the time.
State officials learned of the violations due to a police investigation of a double-homicide at the bar that night.
Doubting the authority of DPH to issue such a fine before any required COVID-19 enforcement action had been taken by the city, Harris had relayed his concerns to legal counsel in the Governor’s office after he failed to reach lawyers at DPH.
A few hours later, he was told by then-agency Commissioner Deidre Gifford that his communication with the Governor’s office showed that he couldn’t be trusted with sensitive information, and he was fired within 48 hours.
Harris was an Executive Assistant, a position commonly known as a “political appointee,” and therefore had no job protections or recourse to his firing through channels available to classified, “civil service” employees.
In late October, Hartford Superior Court Judge Stuart Rosen dismissed Harris’ whistleblower lawsuit against DPH.
The judge ruled that the agency did nothing illegal in issuing the fine, and therefore Harris’ firing based on him reporting his suspicions to that effect was not subject to whistleblower-protection laws.
Harris also had no standing as a whistleblower, Rosen ruled, because he only claimed that Commissioner Gifford “contemplated or planned potential violations of state law, but does not allege any actual or ongoing violations or suspected violations,” as the judge said state law requires.
Harris’ lawyers had argued that such an interpretation of whistleblower laws presents a situation comparable to an employer having to actually pollute a river and harm the public before a whistleblower employee would be protected for trying to stop the pollution before it occurred.
Harris had been seeking a settlement of $220,000, according to documents related to the case, and the Attorney General’s office originally countered with a proposed $5,000 payout before agreeing on the $45,000 figure.
His termination will be described as an “involuntary layoff” in a letter to be placed in his personnel file that will contain no details of the matter.