Terminated commissioner sues state in wake of fraternity controversy

Boston Statehouse

Former Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commissioner Steven Florio. (YouTube/2019)

BOSTON (SHNS) – The former head of the state’s Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing sued the Baker administration in federal court on Wednesday, claiming he was instructed to apologize in the wake of a report about racist behavior at his college fraternity, then terminated because “it was no longer politically correct to employ him.”

Former Commissioner Steven Florio allegedly told staff that he wore robes similar to those of the Ku Klux Klan and made an apparent Nazi salute while a member of Gallaudet University’s Kappa Gamma Fraternity, the Boston Globe reported in July. Following the allegations, Florio reportedly apologized during a staff meeting, and he now says those remarks “were drafted, edited, and approved by” his superiors, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, was first reported by the Boston Globe on Thursday afternoon.

In his lawsuit, which names Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders as defendants, Florio says the allegations against him were false and the decision to terminate his employment “was based on a series of manipulated, misleading, biased, and fabricated internal complaints purportedly unrelated to his fraternity membership,” the lawsuit reads.

“The plaintiff was essentially terminated from his employment with the commonwealth because it was no longer politically correct to employ him, despite his unblemished public service record as the Commissioner in Massachusetts and his 16-year tenure as the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing,” the lawsuit said.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and Baker said they had not received the lawsuit as of Thursday afternoon and did not have any further comment on the pending litigation.

At a press conference over the summer shortly after the original Globe report, Baker said his administration had “no tolerance for intolerance” and would decide whether to terminate Florio’s employment.

“Obviously, there’s no tolerance for intolerance, and I’ll leave it at that. But I think it’s important that this be investigated and that investigation is going on right now,” Baker said at the time. “It was 30 years ago. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to follow up.”

Administration officials placed Florio on administrative leave in July while the internal investigation played out. He was then terminated in October.

Florio argued in the lawsuit that he was not provided an opportunity “to effectively defend himself” during the administration’s investigation or after his termination. He allegees that his termination “permanently and effectively banned him” from working as an executive in the deaf and hard of hearing community.

The former commissioner is seeking a name clearing hearing, compensatory damages such as past and future wages and benefits, and emotional distress damages, among other things, the lawsuit states.

The Kappa Gamma fraternity at Gallaudet University came under intense scrutiny in June after a Washington Post article reported that members were identified wearing ceremonial robes resembling the Ku Klux Klan. The allegations led to the fraternity’s suspension from campus.

The Post also reported that a 1988 photo spread online showing members performing what appeared to be a Nazi salute.

Florio denied being in any of of the photos. In his lawsuit, he described his apology — which Florio now says he was forced to deliver — as “demeaning and shameful in tone and reflected a misleadingly contrite admission by Mr. Florio for an innocent past association with the college fraternity.”

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