Schirin Rangnick

Three years after being fired in the wake of allegations of bribery and threats, former Executive Director of the Commission on Equal Opportunities Nichole Jefferson is set to return to her former position in City Hall.

The Connecticut Board of Arbitration and Mediation voted last week to reinstate Jefferson, whom Mayor Toni Harp terminated in August 2015, citing 11 charges. The board ruled that the city met the burden of proof for only three of these charges, deciding that the city owes Jefferson almost three years of back pay and almost a year of contractual benefits. The case has already cost the city more than $300,000 in legal fees.

“Over the years, me and my staff … were held to a high standard,” Jefferson said at a public hearing of the Board of Alders Finance Committee during the 2016 budget negotiations, according to the New Haven Independent. “[New Haven Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson SOM ’83] has money to fight me, but they don’t have money to staff an office that is doing a good job.”

Jefferson was placed on leave in August 2015 and was terminated shortly afterward. In an August 2015 letter, Harp said that Jefferson had “engaged in intimidation, attempted bribery and corruption with contractors doing business with the City of New Haven.” According to the letter, Jefferson also used city work time and resources to create and operate a separate entity, Career Compliance Placement, which she did not disclose. Jefferson could not be reached for comment.

Out of three appeals regarding Jefferson’s unemployment benefits, Jefferson won the first and last, forcing the city to pay $13,500 in unemployment benefits and roughly $30,500 in legal fees, according to Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr., who testified at a Board of Alders Finance Committee budget workshop on April 9. In January 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s office found no evidence of wrongdoing on Jefferson’s part after the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched her tax records, bank accounts and electronic records.

The Connecticut Board of Arbitration and Mediation’s three-member panel met 18 times between January 2016 and May 2017, arriving at a decision about 10 months later. They found no evidence of bribery, threats or failure to cooperate. Outside counsel billed the city for about $296,700 during this time, according to Rose’s testimony.

On the day of Jefferson’s termination, Cherlyn Poindexter, then the president of Local 3144, filed a complaint to the state’s Freedom of Information Commission against several city officials, including Harp, Nemerson, Rose, Commission on Equal Opportunities Chairman Juan Scott and then-Labor Relations Director Marcus Paca. The complaint alleged “that a quorum wasn’t present” during a July 2015 meeting of the Commission on Equal Opportunities, noting that “the respondents did not allow Jefferson to speak” and “willfully destroyed public records that had been requested by Jefferson’s attorney.” The commission dismissed the complaint.

Jefferson had worked for the city for 19 years, including 14 years as the executive director for the Commission on Equal Opportunities, a semi-autonomous civil rights agency responsible for ensuring diversity among city employees and on city projects. When she was fired, her salary was $92,505, and she directed a total of five employees.

At the moment, the commission office is home to one utilization monitor, a clerk and acting interim Executive Director Angel Fernandez-Chavero, who was appointed to the post in Sept. 2016.

According to Rose’s testimony during the April 9 Board of Alders Finance Committee meeting, the city cannot appeal the arbitration board’s decision, but it can motion to vacate or clarify the ruling.

Rose said at the meeting that the decision was “incredibly unclear and badly written,” which means that the city must again pay outside counsel to clarify the ruling.

Labor Relations Director Thomas McCarthy said the decision could mean that the city did not have just cause for terminating Jefferson but did have just cause for suspending her for two years based on the three charges the panel declared valid.

“If you asked my opinion right now, I would say they found just cause for a two-year suspension,” McCarthy said. If this is true, the city would not owe Jefferson back pay for those two years.

Mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer said that “the city’s policy is to withhold comment on ongoing litigation.” Rose and Fernandez-Chavero declined to comment on the case.

According to Rose’s testimony, the city has 45 days from the day of the board decision to decide its next steps.

Nathalie Bussemaker | nathalie.bussemaker@yale.edu