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State commissioner for the deaf allegedly wore KKK-like robes, was part of now-suspended college fraternity

Baker administration says it is investigating allegations

Steven Florio.
Steven Florio.

The state’s chief advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing allegedly told staff members that he wore robes resembling Ku Klux Klan garb and made apparent Nazi salutes while he was a member of a controversial college fraternity three decades ago, according to employees and union officials.

Steven A. Florio, the commissioner of the state’s Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, told members of the agency’s staff in meetings and in an e-mail late last month that he was a member of Kappa Gamma Fraternity at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, D.C., for the deaf and hard of hearing.

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The university suspended the fraternity last month after members were identified wearing blue robes with pointed hoods that resembled Ku Klux Klan garb, The Washington Post reported. The school’s president called the fraternity the “face of systemic racism in our community.”

A photo from 1988 — a year that overlaps with Florio’s time as a student at the school — also spread online, showing former members performing an apparent Nazi salute, according to the Post. Florio, who is white, said in the e-mail to staff he is not “pictured in any of the photos” that have circulated.

In a meeting with employees, however, Florio “admitted to dressing as a Nazi and saluting while wearing garb resembling the uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan” while he was a member of the fraternity, according to a letter shared with The Boston Globe that officials from SEIU Local 509, which represents employees at the commission, sent to Governor Charlie Baker last week.

Neither Florio’s office nor a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the commission, answered specific questions about the allegations. Officials also didn’t address Florio’s current status with the commission.

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“The Executive Office of Health and Human Services takes these allegations seriously and is conducting a thorough internal investigation,” spokeswoman Brooke Karanovich said in an e-mail.

Late last month, Florio called a series of virtual meetings with staff, offering no agenda or warning of what he planned to discuss, employees and union officials said. One staff member said it appeared Florio was reading from a script as he disclosed his past membership with the fraternity, saying it “doesn’t reflect his character.”

“There was no sincerity, no willingness for diplomacy. It just felt really cold,” said the staff member, who is Black. The employee requested anonymity to relay the internal discussions, citing the fear of retaliation.

“I’m enraged. It is completely disrespectful,” the staff member said. “I’m afraid to go to work.”

Florio later e-mailed commission staff, saying he disavows his “past affiliation” with the fraternity and that he remains “totally committed to working with you to carry out our mission.”

“The allegations against this fraternity are deeply troubling, and in no way a reflection of who I am or of my character,” Florio wrote in the e-mail, which was viewed by the Globe. “My community work at the local, state, national, and international levels are the accurate reflections of my character and who I am.

“I understand that due to my own privilege, I could not see the damage done by this organization and its misguided traditions,” he added. “I also could not fully appreciate how my disclosure of this affiliation would affect each of you. For that I am truly sorry.”

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Florio, in the e-mail, did not admit to wearing the robes or engaging in salutes. But in the virtual meetings, he acknowledged “that he had participated in those actions while in the fraternity,” said Peter MacKinnon, the president of SEIU 509, which represents about three dozen members of the agency’s staff and has been in regular contact with them.

The “overwhelming consensus” among employees is they have lost confidence that Florio can continue to lead the commission, MacKinnon said.

“He should not be leading this agency if he engaged in these behaviors,” he said.

MacKinnon and Israel Pierre, the union’s treasurer, asked Baker in a June 29 letter to launch a probe and address what they called “the culture of fear and uncertainty” at the commission. “As governor, any other action would signal complicity,” the officials wrote.

Baker’s office did not respond to questions on Tuesday about the allegations.

Florio, who for 16 years was the director for the Rhode Island Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, was tapped by the Baker administration to be commissioner starting in February 2019. He attended Gallaudet between 1987 and 1992, according to his LinkedIn page, and graduated with a degree in accounting. He later earned a master’s degree in leadership from Northeastern University, according to state officials.

When the Baker administration announced Florio as its new commissioner in late 2018, Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, called him a “respected leader” with a national reputation for “managing organizations, developing policy and programs and building partnerships.”

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The commission serves as the state’s chief advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing, and helps provides interpreter services, registers school interpreters, and connects families with various services.

Roberta J. Cordano, Gallaudet’s president, said in a video on the school’s YouTube page last month that in addition to suspending Kappa Gamma the school is reviewing other organizations after the photos began circulating online. But she framed Kappa Gamma as having a “long history” on the campus, where her father was also a member of the fraternity.

“They have become the face of systemic racism in our community, with photographs of the salute and use of robes being shared on social media,” Cordano said, using sign language. “This behavior is unacceptable.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout