The Baker administration on Thursday placed the state’s chief advocate for the deaf on administrative leave amid allegations he told staff members 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.
Steven A. Florio, the commissioner of the state’s Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, will remain on paid leave from his $120,000-a-year post “pending the outcome of internal investigations,” a state spokeswoman said Thursday.
Patricia Ford, the agency’s deputy commissioner, will lead the commission on an acting basis.
“The Executive Office of Health and Human Services takes these allegations seriously,” said Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for state health and human services secretary, Marylou Sudders.
The allegations, first reported by the Globe on Tuesday, have roiled the small commission, where Florio told staff members 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.
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 — has 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, 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 officials at SEIU Local 509, which represents employees at the commission, sent to Governor Charlie Baker last week and shared with the Globe.
Florio told commission staff he disavows his “past affiliation” with the fraternity and that he remains “totally committed to working with you to carry out our mission.”
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.
“We are grateful to the Baker Administration for acting on our members’ concerns,” said Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU 509, which represents about three dozen members of the agency’s staff. “The vital work at MCDHH relies heavily on trust — between the workers, the people they serve, and those that are in its leadership. Unfortunately, we no longer have that trust in Commissioner Steven Florio. We will respect the Agency’s investigation process and await its findings.”