While on the job as the Peabody fire chief’s administrative assistant, Barbara Debruyckere claims she was sexually harassed and threatened with termination, according to a complaint she has filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
Deputy Chief Eric Harrison asked Debruyckere to put an envelope filled with sex toys on Chief Steven Pasdon’s desk, making her feel “humiliated, embarrassed, and sick to her stomach,” the complaint states.
The City of Peabody, the Peabody Fire Department, Harrison, Pasdon, Lieutenant Ronald Ciampa, and Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt are named as the subjects of the complaint.
Bettencourt, in a statement, said the city “acted appropriately’’ and would defend itself in court. Attorney Stephen Pfaff, who is representing the City of Peabody, said he could not comment on the case because he is investigating the charges and will file a formal response around Oct. 1.
The complaint, which was filed Aug. 5 on Debruyckere’s behalf by attorney John Slattery, said Debruyckere reported the alleged incident, yet the city failed to take immediate action once notified of the matter.
Slattery did not return calls seeking comment.
Around 6 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2012, Debruyckere said she entered the fire alarm office, where Harrison, Ciampa, and several others, all males, were present, the complaint said.
“Deputy Chief Harrison, with a smirk on his face and holding a shipping type manila envelope, said to Ms. Debruyckere in front of all the men, ‘Barbara, we are all adults here, aren’t we?’ ” the complaint states. “Harrison and the other men in the room began to smirk, snicker, and stare at her.”
“Yes we are, but I’m the only woman here,” Debruyckere responded, immediately feeling threatened and uncomfortable, according to the complaint.
Harrison proceeded to pull out a box of sex toys, exhibiting it to Debruyckere and the men who were present, and claiming they were found in the locker of a retired employee, the complaint states.
Debruyckere left the fire alarm unit and went back to the fire prevention office where she confided in her colleague, Donna Zellen, according to the complaint.
After Zellen examined the contents of the envelope, which included a sex tape, sex toys, gel, and a book, Debruyckere took it and placed it on the chief’s desk.
About 10 minutes later, the complaint says, Ciampa entered the office and “demanded the return of the envelope” and said Harrison “had a change of heart and wants the envelope back.”
Ciampa and Debruyckere did not return calls seeking comment.
According to the complaint, Debruyckere took the envelope off the chief’s desk and gave it to Ciampa, who allegedly said, “We are all going to forget about this.”
“Upon information and belief, Lieutenant Ciampa put the envelope in the plastic bag and, at a superior officer’s direction, threw the envelope in the dumpster,” the complaint states.
When she informed Pasdon about what Harrison had allegedly done, he did not address the complaint, but instead “he screamed and yelled at her, and threatened to fire her” because she had spoken to a former firefighter about the matter, according to the complaint.
In a telephone interview, John Gahagan, who said he was a Peabody firefighter from 1961 to 1995 and is now a private investigator, said he received an anonymous phone call describing the incident after it happened, and contacted Debruyckere to confirm the allegations.
When Debruyckere spoke to the chief again, Pasdon said he already knew about how Harrison had treated her, and that Harrison had called him immediately after he had given Debruyckere the envelope to explain what he had done, the complaint says.
Pasdon allegedly ordered Harrison to get the envelope off his desk, stating he did not want those items found there.
Pasdon did not return calls seeking comment.
Debruyckere “has suffered significant emotional distress, panic attacks, [and] stress anxiety insomnia” since the incident. Since May 30, she has been out of work, according to the complaint. She is on paid leave of absence from the Fire Department, according to the mayor’s chief of staff, Christopher Ryder.
According to a statement from Bettencourt, the city took the correct steps in addressing the issue by investigating the incident and scheduling a disciplinary hearing for Harrison.
“Upon receipt of the complaint, a full investigation was undertaken by our legal department,” Bettencourt said in the statement. “At the conclusion of the investigation, a disciplinary action hearing was initiated by my office as required by law.”
Harrison’s hearing was scheduled for June 7, but was canceled because “prior to the hearing, the city reached an agreement with Eric Harrison for his immediate separation of employment from the Peabody Fire Department,” the mayor’s statement said.
Harrison is currently on paid leave following surgery because of an on-the-job injury and his application for retirement is pending, according to Ryder.
“The City of Peabody acted appropriately and consistent with city policy and state law,” Bettencourt added. “We will defend the case accordingly.”
The mayor said he could not comment further because of the ongoing investigation.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination is investigating the case.
Terri Ogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.