The city has agreed to pay $250,000 to a female employee who accused former Mayor Ken Cockayne of sexually harassing her.
The payout will settle a federal lawsuit by Noelle Bates, who also contended that Bristol’s former personnel director and city attorney tried to squelch her complaints.
Bates alleged a pattern of retaliation and harassment by Cockayne, and her lawsuit claimed he warned her in 2016 that “I can sexually harass you and there is nothing you can do about it, because the mayor is an elected official and not a city employee.”
Cockayne, who was elected in 2013 and won a second term in 2015, was censured for misconduct twice during his final term and suffered a crushing defeat in 2017 to Democrat Ellen Zoppo-Sassu. He maintains he did nothing improper.
“I continue to strongly deny any wrongdoing or unlawful conduct whatsoever,” he said in a written statement Wednesday.
“The insurance company had to weigh the cost of litigating vs. settling and it was decided to settle,” Cockayne said. “So although it’s disappointing that the true facts of this case will never really be litigated, I’m glad to finally put this matter behind me and my family.”
The city council voted 5-0 Tuesday night to approve the deal and disclosed the terms of the settlement Wednesday. Zoppo-Sassu, three Democratic council members and Republican David Mills voted.
The settlement specifically bars Bates from publicly criticizing any of the defendants — Cockayne, the city, former Corporation Counsel Edward Krawiecki and former Personnel Director Diane Ferguson — in connection with the case. It also bars them from disparaging her.
By accepting a confidentiality clause, they all agreed not to release more information about the case.
“While the city is bound to confidentiality for issues surrounding the disposition of the settlement and other underlying items like the Rose Report, I do feel that there should be transparency and accountability to the taxpayers, and I have authorized the signed settlement agreement to be released,” Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said.
When the matter became public in 2016, the council hired attorney Michael Rose to investigate Bates’ claims. His findings — referred to as the Rose Report — led the council to censure Cockayne, but city officials at the time chose to keep secret most details of the accusations against him.
Bristol put out a summary of the report that concluded Cockayne had retaliated against Bates and tried to intimidate Richard Lacey, a city attorney who intervened on her behalf. But Rose also reported he didn’t find evidence of sexual harassment.
In a bipartisan vote that year, the council censured Cockayne after conceding it had no authority to take more serious action such as suspension or termination.
A year later, Bates filed her lawsuit, accusing Cockayne of falsely telling people he had a sexual relationship with her. Bates also alleged that after she told Lacey, a city attorney, about what happened, Cockayne warned Lacey that he would tell Bates’ husband “lies … of a defamatory and sexual nature” if she pursued complaints against him.
The lawsuit contended Bates and Cockayne developed “a nonsexual friendship” when he was a councilman in 2011, and that Cockayne later made unwelcome sexual advances. He reached under her skirt at a public event, the suit claimed, and on another occasion pulled her onto his lap to see a pornographic video he was watching on a computer.
Weeks later, voters chose Zoppo-Sassu, his political nemesis, and gave control of the council to a Democratic super-majority.
Council members on Wednesday said nothing about the specifics of the case, but said the agreement lets the city move forward.
“In the last year, the entire tenor of city hall has changed to the positive,” said Democratic council member Mary Fortier.
“This settlement ends an embarrassing chapter for the city,” said council member David Preleski, also a Democrat.
Allied World Insurance, Bristol’s insurer, will pay the settlement. City officials said Wednesday that it’s too early to know if it will directly affect Bristol’s future insurance rates.
Zoppo-Sassu said Bristol had already paid nearly $200,000 for mediation, litigation and legal reviews connected with the matter.
Bates’ attorney, Lewis Chimes, said his client would have no comment. She continues to work for Bristol.
This November’s ballot includes a referendum question that would specifically prohibit elected and appointed city officials from workplace harassment.