I meet Justin Augustine on a Thursday morning at Triple AAA Pizza on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, a diner bedazzled with digital signs that make it hard to miss. It’s a neighborhood place. The waitress knows Augustine and he receives the occasional fist-bump from other customers as they walk ...
The Fitch Files: “Devastating” accusations of sexual favoritism and hostile work environment at Dept. of Revenue Services
The resignation of Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Kevin Sullivan has left Marilee Corr Clark, DRS’s Tax Legal Director, “terrified.”
Her concern is that as Sullivan steps down and Deputy Commissioner Joseph Mooney temporarily takes over as commissioner she will be forced to report directly to DRS First Assistant and General Counsel Louis P. Bucari Jr., who heads the Legal Services Bureau.
On January 1, 2017 Clark filed two complaints with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities — one against Bucari personally and another against DRS — alleging that Bucari created a “hostile work environment” by undermining and systematically freezing Clark out from her work, in favor of a female subordinate attorney whom Bucari propositioned for a romantic personal relationship in 2014.
“I believe that I have been the victim of a campaign of harassment, discrimination and retaliation, all arising out of Bucari’s inappropriate personal relationship with a subordinate and my attempts to report that behavior,” the CHRO complaint reads. “The treatment I have been subjected to has substantially interfered with my work performance to the point where I have been effectively demoted, and Bucari’s sexual favoritism has generally created a hostile and offensive work environment for me and other DRS employees.”
Clark is not the only DRS attorney with concerns. Current and former attorneys interviewed by phone described an “unprofessional” and “inappropriate” work environment. Those attorneys have asked that their names be kept confidential.
But Bucari says the allegations constitute a “completely untrue and baseless attempt” to get him fired and take his job.
“I’m blown away by the allegations,” Bucari says. “When you’ve worked your entire career trying to do the right thing, there’s a personal impact.”
The personal complaint against Bucari has been administratively dismissed by CHRO because Bucari is not Clark’s employer and employees are not individually liable for discriminatory actions other than retaliation or aiding and abetting, according the CHRO document. CHRO found that Bucari’s actions did not meet the threshold for retaliation.
Bucari also supplied affidavits from Commissioner Sullivan, Deputy Commissioner Mooney and Human Resources Administrator Jeanette Perez — among others — which dispute some of Clark’s allegations, particularly that she was “effectively demoted.”
Clark’s complaint against DRS, however, was released from jurisdiction by CHRO and Clark says she intends to pursue this matter in Superior Court.
Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request, documents provided personally by the attorneys, and conversations with attorneys currently working at the department, paint a picture of the DRS’s legal division beset by accusations on both sides, creating a strained work environment.
In response to the situation, DRS’s Human Resources Department recommended Bucari attend conflict resolution and leadership skill-building training as well as attending mediation meetings with Clark.
Both Bucari and Clark say none of these recommendations have been implemented.
The Complaint and DRS Investigation
According to the both the CHRO complaint and an internal DRS investigation, Bucari propositioned a female attorney under Clark’s supervision — identified as Erica McKenzie — for a romantic relationship in 2014. McKenzie then confided to Clark about the incident.
Clark claims she confronted Bucari about his actions, but he denied them. However, after the confrontation Bucari authorized a change in McKenzie’s job classification which came with a pay raise. He also changed McKenzie’s annual evaluation so she received an “exceeds expectations” grade in every category.
Bucari says the change in classification and the pay raise was an attempt to make the position more competitive and more accurately represent the duties of a Tax Attorney I. “Any attempt to draw that this was done for an individual is inaccurate,” Bucari said.
Clark claims Bucari then began to actively withhold information from her, forwarded her emails to McKenzie without cause, reassigned work to McKenzie and began to take McKenzie with him to pretrial hearings.
The DRS investigation notes “Mr. Bucari stated he holds Ms. McKenzie in high regard and values her opinion and input. As a result, he relies on her for a variety of matters.”
But according to Clark’s CHRO complaint, “The relationship between Bucari and McKenzie became so apparent that it was uncomfortable for other employees; I received comments and complaints about their behavior from both employees who reported to me and employees who did not report to me.”
McKenzie started as a clerk in 2012 and rose up the ranks in DRS’s legal division, finally rising to Tax Attorney II in 2017.
Before pursuing her complaint with CHRO, Clark took her allegations to the Human Resources in 2015 and DRS launched an internal investigation.
The investigation found that although both Bucari and McKenzie denied a romantic relationship, Bucari had “exercised poor judgement in asking a subordinate her interest in establishing a personal relationship and subsequently not maintaining clear boundaries.”
During the internal investigation, Bucari admitted to changing McKenzie’s 2013-2014 performance assessment to give her a higher rating.
Bucari denied any “intentional exclusion” of Clark from work-related matters, but the investigation did confirm Clark’s allegation that Bucari was forwarding her emails to McKenzie concerning “matters that she did not have any reason to be involved in and/or had no business reason to know.”
The DRS investigation determined Bucari had also exercised poor judgement in “not including Ms. Clark when necessary and/or relevant to her role as Tax Legal Director,” but said the issue did not meet the standards of creating a hostile work environment.
Bucari was ordered to attend “leadership skill building training” and conflict resolution training. The DRS also said mediation sessions would be conducted between Bucari and Clark.
Both Bucari and Clark say the mediation meetings and leadership skill building training never happened. “As far as I know, none of the recommendations from the investigation were implemented,” Clark said in an email.
Emails between Clark, Joseph Mooney and Jeanette Perez of Human Resources show Clark requesting a transfer to another position and inquiring when mediation meetings would be held. Perez responded: “My apologies Marilee. This is going to cost the department money. I will get a quote.”
Clark says that email — dated April 6, 2016 — was the last time she heard anything about the mediation meetings recommended by DRS’s internal investigation.
Bucari says he has also requested those mediation meetings take place, but says the agency is “overwhelmed and busy.”
Following the investigation by DRS, Clark met with Commissioner Sullivan, Mooney and Perez. The commissioner reorganized the legal division, moving Clark to head of the Office of Legal Affairs and Research. Under this arrangement, Clark would report directly to Deputy Commissioner Mooney, rather than Bucari, according to Sullivan’s affidavit.
Mooney will now step into Commissioner Sullivan’s role when he steps down this week.
“Attorney Clark and I need to continue to work together,” Bucari said.
“I’m actually terrified I might have to report to him again,” Clark said in an interview. “That’s my biggest concern.”
A comparison of DRS organizational charts show the shift in oversight of Legal Affairs and Research from Bucari to Mooney between 2016 and 2017
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Not The Only Complaint Against DRS
Clark was not the only DRS employee to file a CHRO complaint against Bucari. John P. Bashar alleged that he was frozen out of his job by Bucari and passed over for a promotion in favor of a younger, more inexperienced female attorney — namely Marilee Clark.
In an interview, Clark said she now questions her own promotion to Tax Legal Director, noting that one night Bucari waited until the office was empty before asking her out for a drink. “I was kind of naive, and I have to own up to that,” she said, adding that her promotion “was not done properly.”
Bashar’s CHRO complaint alleges that although he was a Tax Attorney II with more than 40 years’ experience, he was removed from the Litigation Division and assigned the job of reviewing penalty waivers in 2015 — a task normally reserved for student interns.
Bashar alleged that he was routinely ostracized and subjected to “humiliation, abuse, embarrassment and intolerable working conditions,” according to the complaint.
Bashar retired after filing his CHRO claim in 2016 and now works as Chief of Staff for Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti. He has not pursued his claim any further, but his is just one of a number of complaints lodged against the department over the past ten years.
A similar but separate complaint filed by Raymond Ostasiewski against the DRS alleged he was passed over for a promotion in favor of younger, less experienced attorneys due to age discrimination. Other complaints allege discrimination based on race, disability, and religion, but the status of those complaints is unknown at this time.
Bucari was appointed to First Assistant Commissioner in 2008 and last year earned $160,845 in salary with $43,375.31 in fringe benefits, according to the state’s transparency website. He also acts as DRS General Counsel and head of the Legal Services Bureau.
Bucari’s title as First Assistant is a bit of a mystery. The position was created by statute in order to administer Connecticut’s transfer and succession tax. However, the transfer and succession tax ended in 2005, yet the position — or at least the title — remains.
Commissioner Sullivan said in an email “There is no stand-alone filled position of First Assistant Commissioner. Some years ago, before my time, the statutory functions were merged as a cost-savings measure and continue to be merged with the Office of General Counsel who serves as the First Assistant Commissioner for succession purposes after the sole Deputy Commissioner.”
Clark believes Bucari’s actions and the environment he has created at DRS is forcing out talented attorneys and worries she may not be able to continue in her job because “he acts inappropriately.”
“He shouldn’t be allowed to do what he’s doing with state resources,” Clark said.
But Bucari says Clark’s complaints — particularly the allegations of favoritism based on a romantic relationship — are “completely without merit” in a lengthy response to Clark’s allegations. The CHRO concluded that even if there existed a relationship that alone would not meet the standards of creating a hostile work environment.
Whether the situation at DRS constitutes a hostile work environment is clearly in dispute, but in a social environment fraught with harassment allegations the work environment at DRS may be more than a little uncomfortable for the men and women working there.
“I can’t change the way someone perceives things,” Bucari said. “To have someone you hired and someone you promoted take this approach is absolutely devastating.”
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