Nat Kerman

Mayor Justin Elicker ousted Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett on Friday, following through a campaign promise to fire the subject of a sweeping FBI probe into corruption in the Harp administration.

Bartlett came to City Hall in 2014 after running former Mayor Toni Harp’s campaign. As the Youth Services director, he led the development of the Escape Teen Center, a proposed youth center and homeless shelter in the low-income Dixwell neighborhood. But the project stalled indefinitely, leading community members and government officials to question Bartlett’s ability to deliver results. Last summer, the former city staffer faced a new round of questions — this time, as part of an FBI probe into corruption after emails obtained by the New Haven Independent revealed that he had given Escape Center contracts to a friend in a no-bid process. Bartlett has noted that the FBI never publicly named him as a subject of the investigation.

Bartlett was a key figure in a broader campaign conversation about corruption in the Harp administration as then-candidate Elicker and Harp sparred ahead of the Democratic primary. After the FBI announced its probe in late June, Harp put Bartlett on leave and removed him as co-chair of her reelection campaign. But she declined to call for his resignation or terminate his employment, drawing criticism from Elicker. According to the New Haven Independent, Elicker initiated an internal investigation into Bartlett’s activities after assuming office in January and fired him on Friday. Bartlett promised to combat this decision.

“Of course I’m going to fight,” Bartlett told the New Haven Independent on Friday. “I’m reviewing all my options … I refused every allegation made against me.”

In addition to refusing all allegations, Bartlett in November filed a discrimination complaint with the State Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities that alleged an “indecisive, humiliating and unjust lack of respect” in the Harp administration. This, he wrote, constituted a “gross violation of [his] civil rights that … caused [him] great emotional distress.”

In his complaint, Bartlett also questioned Elicker’s calls for his termination.

“Why would then mayoral candidate, now Mayoral-Elect Justin Elicker (White Male) call for a middle-management black, gay male to be fired from the City of New Haven when he was aware that ‘no member of the mayor’s administration’ was named in the subpoena issued to the city of New Haven?” Bartlett wrote. “What is Mr. Elicker’s non-discriminatory reason for calling for the termination of a black, gay, New Haven city employee who is not an elected official?”

The Elicker administration declined to provide official comment on Bartlett’s termination or on his discrimination complaint, referring to Friday’s firing as a “personnel matter.”

Bartlett served as Harp’s campaign manager in 2013 and stayed on with the former mayor as her Youth Services director. Prior to this post, he had served in the state legislature and made a name for himself as a campaign manager for Republicans and Democrats.

Under Harp, he co-led Youth Stat — an intervention program for at-risk teens — with officials who then served the Board of Education. In September 2015, Bartlett took the lead on the Escape Teen Center project. Announcing the project, Harp acknowledged that Bartlett was a controversial figure but said that she was glad he “breaks the rules” sometimes to get difficult projects done, according to the New Haven Independent.

But the next few years revealed that when it came to the Escape Center, Bartlett would break the rules without delivering results. The project stalled due to infrastructure issues at the 654 Orchard St. location as well as budgetary challenges, the New Haven Independent reported in March 2018. Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, who represents Dixwell in the city’s legislative body, remarked at the time that the city continues to funnel money into the project without seeing returns.

“This is a project that went from costing a couple of dollars to a couple of more, to more and more and more,” Morrison said at a Board of Alders meeting, according to the New Haven Independent. “My constituents are always asking me about the Escape, and they feel like we are putting money constantly into it, but we have no product.”

One year later, Harp all but ended the project by greatly reducing funding in her proposed budget.

By July 2019, the project remained a mere proposal and Bartlett came under fire — not just for the delays, but also for allegations of corruption. Emails obtained by the New Haven Independent revealed that Bartlett had given a no-bid Escape Center contract to his friend. This made him one of several subjects of a sweeping FBI probe into corruption in the Harp administration last summer.

While Elicker called for Bartlett’s termination, Harp instead chose to put him on administrative leave and take him off of her reelection campaign staff.

“The presumption of innocence is a hallmark of the American way,” she said in a statement released by her office at the time. “Public-sector employment standards protect workers and are far more complex than this simplistic suggestion reflecting a naive misunderstanding of the responsibilities of mayor.”

On Friday, Elicker chose a different course and fired Bartlett. As for the Escape Teen Center, he told the New Haven Independent that the project is “unlikely” to move forward.

Elicker has not yet announced Bartlett’s replacement.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu