Last summer, commissioner Steven A. Florio issued a series of remorseful statements to his staff at the state Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, disavowing ties to his college fraternity after reports that current members wore robes resembling Ku Klux Klan garb and decades-old photos surfaced of alumni doing an apparent Nazi salute.
“I understand that due to my own privilege, I could not see the damage done by this organization and its misguided traditions,” Florio said.
But Florio didn’t actually write those statements, he claims in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against Governor Charlie Baker and others in his administration. The “misleadingly contrite” messages were “drafted, edited and approved” by his superiors and helped fuel a series of events that ended in his wrongful termination months later as the state’s chief advocate for the deaf, the lawsuit states.
Florio alleges he was fired in October to give Baker and Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, “political cover” after controversy erupted around Florio’s time with Kappa Gamma Fraternity at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, D.C., for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Union officials had sent Baker a letter in late June, alleging Florio had admitted in meetings with staff to “dressing as a Nazi” and saluting while wearing the KKK-like blue robes while at the fraternity — statements Florio says he never made.
The Baker administration also encouraged and solicited staff at the commission to make “fabricated” complaints against him, according to Florio’s 26-page complaint. It led to at least four investigations into him that Florio called a “biased” process with the goal of creating a “pre-textual” reason to fire him, violating his federal and state civil and constitutional rights.
“The plaintiff was essentially terminated from his employment with the Commonwealth because it was no longer politically correct to employ him,” according to the complaint.
A spokeswoman for Baker and Sudders said the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the commission, had not received the lawsuit and declined to comment on its allegations.
Gallaudet University suspended Kappa Gamma Fraternity in June after members were identified wearing blue robes with pointed hoods that resembled Ku Klux Klan garb. Photo from the 1980s and early 1990s — which overlap with Florio’s time as a student there — also spread online, showing former members performing an apparent Nazi salute, and the school’s president last summer denounced the fraternity as the “face of systemic racism in our community.”
Florio, who had led the commission since February 2019, denies he was in any of the photos that circulated on social media. The Baker administration put him on leave in July after the meetings with commission staff when he disclosed and apologized for his ties to the fraternity.
One staff member told the Globe at the time that it appeared Florio was reading from a script during a meeting. That’s because he was, according to Florio’s complaint. He said one of the commission’s attorneys had read a Facebook post claiming that Florio was among the fraternity members photographed giving what appeared to be a Nazi salute. The allegations were eventually brought to Baker, according to the lawsuit.
Florio’s superiors then ordered him to read verbatim statements “produced by the defendants” to his staff disavowing his association with the frat, the lawsuit alleges.
Florio said he felt the statements “were cold” and portrayed him in a false light. In the lawsuit, he described his 29-year-old ties to the fraternity, which he belonged to for one year between 1991 and 1992, as an “innocent past association,” and he sought to explain the frat’s use of the Nazi-like gesture.
It was called “Bellamy Salute,” which the fraternity had adopted in the early 20th century when it was the national salute to the flag, according to the lawsuit. Congress, however, replaced it in 1942 with the hand-over-heart salute now used when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because the original gesture closely resembled the one used in Nazi Germany.
Florio argued in his complaint that the salute had “long predated” the similar Nazi gesture. “Gallaudet University has been fully aware of Kappa Gamma’s use of the Bellamy Salute and ceremonial robes,” Florio wrote. “The strong public criticism of Kappa Gamma did not come about until mid-2020.”
At the time, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer had sparked demonstrations across the country, touching off a national reckoning on racism, social injustice, and white supremacy.
It was only then, Florio said, that staff began filing complaints, which he said were the first made against him in his time at the agency or in 16 years as director of Rhode Island’s commission for the deaf.
Florio is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, including past and future wages and benefits and other punitive damages. His lawyer, Philip N. Beauregard, said Thursday he expects the compensation would be “substantial,” saying that Florio’s termination, and the publicity surrounding it, have ruined Florio’s job prospects. Beauregard said Florio has applied for other work within the deaf community but hasn’t been able to get an interview.
Beauregard said he’s also filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, arguing that the Baker administration’s investigations of Florio carried a “pronounced bias . . . due to his disability.”
The lawsuit also names Sudders; Catherine Starr, the human resources officer for the state’s health and human services secretariat; and Erica Crystal, the labor relations director for the state’s health office.
The state in January said it had hired a new director for the commission, tapping Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa, an attorney, activist, and author who had previously been the executive director of Missouri’s commission for the deaf. Sotonwa, who officials say helped draft federal disability rights law in his native Nigeria, is the first person of color to hold the post.