Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Complaint dropped, but Felix Arroyo is still in limbo

Boston-09/09/13 Felix Arroyo at the Globe held a mayoral debate and forum at the Boston Globe. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
Globe Staff Photo illustration

Last November, Felix Arroyo’s accuser withdrew her formal complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination — the one in which she accused the onetime Boston mayoral candidate of sexual harassment that included lewd comments and workplace spankings, and ended with a meeting in Arroyo’s office during which he allegedly grabbed her by the neck.

By pulling the complaint, the woman preserves her right to pursue civil action. But no suit has yet been filed in court. Meanwhile, Arroyo, who denies all the charges against him, lost his job as head of the mayor’s office of health and human services, along with his reputation. What’s he supposed to do now, beyond wait and see what happens next? And what are we supposed to think of him? According to city officials, the woman is working as a substitute teacher in the Boston public schools. Arroyo, 38, is unemployed, and any future he might have envisioned in politics or community leadership is shattered, for now.

The Globe has not identified this woman, because it doesn’t name victims or alleged victims in certain types of cases. The woman didn’t respond to a voice mail or text message seeking comment about the withdrawn complaint. Cary P. Gianoulis, the lawyer who represented her regarding the MCAD complaint, didn’t respond to an e-mail. Mayor Martin J. Walsh isn’t talking either. The ending, so far, is ambiguous for all parties, especially Arroyo.

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The MCAD complaint was filed against Arroyo, Walsh, and the City of Boston — so the city has a stake in any future lawsuit seeking damages. Walsh is likely worried about liability, not Arroyo’s standing in the community.

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In its legal response to the MCAD complaint, the city stated it does not have “sufficient knowledge or information to admit or deny” the woman’s allegations about sexual harassment. The city’s response also states the woman told them that in 2015 she and Arroyo began “a romantic/sexual relationship, which continued off and on until sometime in the spring of 2017.” The woman, who was married, reportedly “admitted that she welcomed the attention she received from Mr. Arroyo and that the relationship was voluntary.” She told the city Arroyo began retaliating against her when she tried to end it. The city also notes this woman previously filed a harassment complaint against another city employee, but doesn’t reveal the finding.

Those are the public disclosures. However, according to city officials, the decision to fire Arroyo was based on an independent investigation conducted by an outside counsel — Kay Hodges — whose findings are confidential. If the accuser files a lawsuit, city officials said that investigative report would be potentially available under discovery. However, depending on the nature of the suit, the report could be filed under seal or under protective order, due to privacy concerns. For now, there’s no way for the public to know what, if any, evidence exists, beyond the woman’s word.

Arroyo denies everything — from consensual sex to sexual harassment. He said the woman’s work was substandard, and the trouble started when he called her out on it. Several employees who worked for Arroyo when he headed the office of health and human services signed affidavits that describe inappropriate comments and behavior from the woman. Signed under oath, these employees insist the woman, not Arroyo, behaved unprofessionally. For example, according to one statement given under penalties of perjury, the woman sent co-workers a link to a photo of a nude man, talked about her sex life and other personal details at work, and, during a work meeting, brought up a visit to a strip show.

In these affidavits, city workers state they never witnessed any of the inappropriate behavior described in the MCAD complaint. As for that final meeting in Arroyo’s office, when he allegedly grabbed the woman by the neck, an employee who claimed to have a direct sight line into Arroyo’s office, provides this account: “The door remained open during their meeting, . . . I watched the entire conversation. Felix’s desk was between Felix and (the woman) the entire time. He did not move from behind his desk and was never even within arm’s length of her. Felix never touched her.”

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Current city policy does not explicitly prohibit a sexual relationship between a boss and subordinate. According to the guidelines for managers, “In terms of sexual harassment, a safe approach for a manager is to eliminate all behaviors that could have sexual interpretations.” Dating isn’t prohibited, but managers are warned that it could lead to sexual harassment charges from a subordinate who feels pressured to say yes and retaliated against if the date is refused; or from other employees who feel disadvantaged. If Arroyo retaliated after a relationship ended, that’s, of course, unacceptable. Yet the now-withdrawn sexual harassment complaint doesn’t clearly describe retaliation — at least, not specifically by Arroyo. In the complaint, the woman said Arroyo’s chief of staff “made my work environment extremely uncomfortable, presumably at his direction. She would do things like give me unreasonable deadlines, monitor how long I was in the bathroom, and assign me projects that led nowhere.”

This woman first complained to the city about Arroyo in July, and he was fired in August, after she filed her complaint with the state. So this situation officially pre-dates the #MeToo movement that took off after The New York Times reported high-profile cases of sexual harassment and misconduct that began with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, dozens of prominent men have lost their jobs and good names. Some apologized and acknowledged misconduct. Others continue to deny everything.

For too long, women who were victims of sexual assault and harassment were not believed. As a result, many in the #MeToo movement feel that if some innocent men now become casualties, so be it. I don’t know what really happened between Arroyo and this woman. Without corroborating evidence, it comes down to her word against his. With the MCAD complaint withdrawn, and no final disposition, a cloud remains over Arroyo’s head. Is it deserved? It’s one thing if these accusations are part of a pattern of documented misconduct. Yet, whatever the rumors or speculation, city officials confirm that no other sexual harassment complaints were ever filed against Arroyo.

With #MeToo as the contextual backdrop, power has shifted enormously in these cases. Men used to have the upper hand, but for now, that’s no longer true. In Arroyo’s case, his accuser’s identity is protected. He’s exposed. She’s working. He’s not. She’s believed. He’s doubted.

Is that progress or another kind of injustice?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.