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New R.I. Ethics Commission appointee faced sexual harassment allegations from six women

Governor Daniel J. McKee defends appointment, but Common Cause says Bryant C. Da Cruz is “unfit to serve on such an important body.”

Bryant C. Da Cruz has been chosen by Governor Daniel J. McKee as a new member of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.Rhode Island Association of Realtors

PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee’s new pick for the state Ethics Commission, Bryant C. Da Cruz, was the subject of sexual harassment complaints by six women, including two town employees, when he was vice chairman of the South Kingstown Town Council.

Da Cruz told the Globe on Thursday that the governor’s staff didn’t ask him about the complaints that formed the basis of a January 2019 memorandum by the town manager. In that memo, obtained by the Globe in a public records request, Da Cruz “agreed that his behavior was unacceptable, and he affirmed that he would not engage in any future communications of the type that prompted the complaints.”

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The memo said town administrators and lawyers met with Da Cruz and spelled out the town’s sexual harassment policy, but decided the town couldn’t take any action because Da Cruz wasn’t an employee. Six months later, the town changed its sexual harassment policy to include elected council members.

The town hasn’t publicly released the complaints, but some women told the Globe that Da Cruz, who was married, had sent them messages, texting and through Facebook, with sexual innuendo, inappropriate comments on their appearance, and unwanted invitations for drinks.

Da Cruz offered a public apology at the time “if I have offended anyone,” according to The Narragansett Times. But now, he told the Globe that almost all of the complaints were politically motivated, with the exception of one involving a town employee. She was staying at a hotel, and he said he was messaging her. “I made a mistake at the time,” Da Cruz said. “I was sitting at my desk drinking bourbon and typed stuff I shouldn’t have typed.”

Da Cruz also said he has since discovered that he has a nonverbal learning disorder, which leads him to misread social cues. He said the women misunderstood his comments. He said he thought they were friends.

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“It’s a very complicated thing, and I do hope we get past this, because I do feel strongly I’m the right person to be appointed to the Ethics Commission,” he said.

Da Cruz is scheduled to be sworn in at the Ethics Commission meeting Dec. 12 to replace Sister M. Therese Antone, Salve Regina University’s chancellor, who resigned two years ago. He’s filling a partial term that expires in 2024, and will be eligible for reappointment to a full five-year term. The commission is a nine-member board of volunteers.

Da Cruz, 48, has been a Realtor since 2003 and is immediate past president of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. He is a volunteer firefighter for the Union Fire District and on the board of advisers for Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick.

McKee spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said the governor believes Da Cruz can serve effectively on the Ethics Commission.

“As the 2019 reporting on this points out, none of the allegations warranted action by the town or police department,” Palagi said. She did not answer the Globe’s questions about the vetting process.

But Da Cruz’s appointment stunned women who had complained about his behavior.

“It’s hard to believe anyone, especially the Rhode Island governor, would think it’s appropriate to appoint him to the Ethics Commission, of all things, of all bodies,” said Sarah Markey, a former vice chairwoman of the South Kingstown School Committee. “What a message to multiple women who submitted complaints and are watching.”

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Da Cruz had publicly targeted Markey in 2018, taking issue with her also being an assistant executive director of the National Education Association RI teachers union. (The Ethics Commission determined that she didn’t violate the state ethics code.)

Behind the scenes, Markey said, Da Cruz was sending her private messages about her appearance, making sexually charged comments, and inviting her out for drinks. “He didn’t agree with me politically, but he would sexually harass me,” she told the Globe, her voice shaking.

In late December 2018, Markey said, she saw a social media post from another woman asking about a councilman behaving inappropriately with her at the YMCA. “It was an open secret that Councilman Da Cruz would hit on women and make advances,” Markey said. “I was just tired of it.”

She wrote a public post on her personal Facebook page questioning Da Cruz’s animosity toward current members of the school committee — and whether it was personal. ”I’m really curious about why you have such an axe to grind with the current school committee,” she said. “Is it just Wakefield school? Or the way more than one of us has had to dodge your flirting come-ons and invites to drinks before we were elected?”

Markey’s post prompted then-Town Council president Abel Collins to take to Facebook and encourage women to come forward: “A number of women in our community, including a town employee, have raised credible allegations of sexual harassment on the part of Councilman Bryant Da Cruz. We must take these reports seriously,” he wrote.

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While sexual harassment policy at the time did not cover elected officials, Collins said Town Council members should be held to the same standards. “Let’s build a safe and respectful SK (looking at the men here),” he concluded.

More women came forward.

Liz Gledhill, a former town councilwoman and former chairwoman of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, showed the Globe screenshots of messages from a few of the women about their encounters with Da Cruz. One woman told Gledhill that Da Cruz said she was “hot,” that she “turned him on,” and invited her to “Legs and Eggs” at the Foxy Lady strip club. A town employee called him “a predator.”

Gledhill said that Da Cruz was also inappropriate with her while they were both on the council. During an event at the University of Rhode Island, Da Cruz showed her photos of old Playboy magazines that he wanted to bid on, she said. Da Cruz told the Globe the Playboys belonged to a friend, who he said was raising money for breast cancer awareness.

On Jan. 4, 2019, Da Cruz was called to a meeting with South Kingstown administrators and lawyers to address the sexual harassment allegations, according to the memorandum.

Then-town manager Robert Zarnetske told the Town Council he had taken a complaint from a town employee who received Facebook messages from Da Cruz “that she deemed unwanted and inappropriate.” He said he later received email messages from five other women “who complained of inappropriate or harassing communications” from Da Cruz.

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Zarnetske sent the two town employees who lodged complaints a letter saying that under town policy at the time, employees could be disciplined or even fired for proven acts of sexual harassment. But, he noted, that as an elected Town Council member, Da Cruz was considered a town official but not a town employee.

In his memo, Zarnetske said he told the other four women that he lacked the authority to address their complaints because they didn’t work for the town. But he said he advised them of their rights to pursue recourse through other avenues, including the town police department — and the state Ethics Commission.

Collins received both criticism and praise for his Facebook post encouraging women to come forward. Nearly five years later, Collins told the Globe he does not think the allegations lodged against Da Cruz should keep him off the Ethics Commission.

“The investigation that was done by the town manager at the time uncovered no real legal issues,” he said. “I guess Bryant said some things to women that were unwelcome but nothing that rose to any criminal or civil problem. So it just sort of ended there.”

Collins said the allegations were “shocking” because Bryant was considered an “upstanding guy,” and he said, “I think he has grown from that.” He described Bryant as “a very affable person, quick with a smile. He is just friendly, and he has been very engaged in civic organizations, the volunteer fire department. He is very community minded, and he has done really admirable things in terms of taking in foster children.”

Collins said the allegations arose “in the heat of the #MeToo Movement,” which he called “an important cultural movement.” But he said none of the women filed civil complaints or went to the police. “It kind of just fizzled out,” he said.

But John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said Da Cruz’s conduct as a member of the South Kingstown Town Council “makes him unfit to serve on such an important body as the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.”

Ethics Commission appointments are arguably the most important that a governor makes, aside from choosing state judges, Marion said. Rhode Island’s constitution gives the Ethics Commission “extraordinary powers,” including removing elected officials from office, and Common Cause fought for a law that holds Ethics Commission members to a higher standard, including banning lobbyists from the panel, he said.

“Potential appointees should be fully vetted so that people who are asked to serve meet the highest standards,” Marion said. “In this case, it appears that vetting, if it did occur, failed, or the governor overlooked some rather egregious behavior by his most recent appointee.”

Marion said the town manager appeared to find the sexual harassment allegations against Da Cruz “serious enough to tell the victims that, but for the fact that the town’s sexual harassment policy did not cover elected officials, Mr. Da Cruz would have been disciplined.”

On the Ethics Commission, Da Cruz will have jurisdiction over those same employees, should they still work for the town, Marion said, noting that Town Council has since changed its sexual harassment policy to include its own members.

“Mr. Da Cruz was allowed to get away with this behavior only because the town’s policy did not include his position at the time,” Marion said, “and he should not be trusted with the critical work of the Ethics Commission.”

Gledhill agreed, and said she was “perplexed” by Da Cruz’s appointment. “The governor has a responsibility to vet. I wish the governor’s office had reached out to some of the people who worked with him down here,” she said. “We are talking about people who are the moral authority in the state. What does this say to women in the state?”

For the women who complained about Da Cruz, the governor’s appointment spoke volumes.

“It’s just almost a reiteration that it doesn’t matter what women say or evidence they give,” Markey said, “you’re going to be the one who takes the hit, not the man with power and connections.”


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her @AmandaMilkovits. Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.