House Judiciary chairman removed over alleged sexual harassment

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House Judiciary chairman removed over alleged sexual harassment

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – One of Rhode Island’s top lawmakers was removed from his powerful leadership post and placed on administrative leave by his employer late Monday after the Target 12 Investigators uncovered an email accusing him of sexual harassment.

The email, newly obtained by Target 12, was sent March 11 by state Rep. Katherine Kazarian to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. “As we have discussed, I have endured years of sexual harassment by House Judiciary Chairperson, Cale Keable,” Kazarian wrote to Mattiello. She went on to express concerns about whether Keable would handle her bills fairly before his committee.

Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, was first elected in 2012 when she was 22. Keable, a married Burrillville Democrat 14 years her senior, was first elected in 2010; he has been a key member of Mattiello’s leadership team throughout his time as speaker.

Kazarian confirmed the authenticity of the email in a brief interview. She declined to discuss Keable’s behavior, but told Target 12, “The email speaks for itself, and all I wanted was a fair hearing.”

Keable has so far declined requests for an interview, but on Monday his lawyer, Kathleen Hagerty, called Kazarian’s claims “unsubstantiated years old allegations.”

Mattiello announced at 7:30 p.m., about 90 minutes after Target 12 first revealed Kazarian’s email, that he had removed Keable from his leadership post. “I talked to Representative Keable and I have removed him as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee pending clarity of this issue,” Mattiello said.

The report quickly triggered a flood of critical statements from all over the political spectrum, including the National Organization for Women’s Rhode Island chapter, R.I. GOP Chairman Brandon Bell, Mattiello challenger Steve Frias, and Providence Rep. Ray Hull.

Gov. Gina Raimondo also weighed in.

“These allegations of sexual harassment are disturbing,” Raimondo said. “They erode the public’s confidence in government. There can be no tolerance for sexual harassment at the State House. Anything less is a disservice to the victims and to the public.”

Before Target 12 published its findings, Keable’s employer – the prestigious law firm Partridge Snow & Hahn – released a statement announcing it was placing the lawmaker on administrative leave “after it became aware of allegations earlier today regarding a claim of sexual harassment against Rep. Keable involving another legislator.”

“Our firm takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and we believe it is in the best interest of our partners, employees and clients that Rep. Keable remain on administrative leave until these allegations are clarified,” Howard Merten, the firm’s managing partner, told Target 12 in a statement. He declined further comment.

In interviews with Target 12, a dozen current and former state lawmakers confirmed that Kazarian’s complaints about Keable’s behavior have been widely known among House lawmakers for years.

Mattiello refused to be interviewed on the record about how he handled the situation. But in a statement Monday, he confirmed that in 2015 he told the two lawmakers to avoid further contact; in 2017 he sent an aide to accompany Kazarian when she appeared before Keable’s committee; and in April of this year he forced Keable to leave the hearing room when she testified in front of the committee.

A video of the April hearing shows Keable started it, but was gone about 15 minutes later when Kazarian sat down to testify. State Rep. Edie Ajello, who chaired the hearing in Keable’s absence, told Eyewitness News she was never informed why he had departed.

“The chairman got up and said, ‘You’re in charge, Edie,’ and so I took over,” Ajello recalled, adding: “If I was given any indication of why, it was by Katie Kazarian, who had told me that she did not want to be presenting her bill again in 2018 with Chairman Keable acting as chair. I knew she didn’t want to do that.”

“There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I would say Katie Kazarian should have done differently,” Ajello said.

Kazarian’s March 11 email indicates Mattiello did not agree to her request to have her bills moved out of Keable’s committee altogether so she could avoid testifying before him. She also complained that Keable had mistreated a witness testifying in support of her legislation last year.

Mattiello appointed Keable to lead House Judiciary when he took over as speaker in March 2014 and has kept him in the post since then. Multiple lawmakers said Mattiello considered promoting Keable to majority leader in 2016, though the speaker has indicated he was always strongly supportive of Joe Shekarchi.

State Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat who last year was the first lawmaker to speak out about sexual harassment at the State House, said she led a group of lawmakers who contacted Mattiello at the time to tell him they would revolt if Keable was appointed.

House Labor Committee Chairman Robert Craven recalled later hearing Mattiello relate his conversation with Keable. “The speaker said he had spoken to Cale and told him it wasn’t going to happen because of Katherine Kazarian’s complaints about his behaviors,” Craven, D-North Kingstown, told Eyewitness News.

Keable’s lawyer disputed Craven’s account, saying that Keable “was never told by Speaker Mattiello that he was not chosen as majority leader for any reason related to Rep. Kazarian.”

Speaker Mattiello’s full statement issued Monday afternoon:

“Four years ago, I became aware that a close personal and professional relationship between Representatives Keable and Kazarian had ended during a non-State House event in which I was not present.  Based on what I learned after the fact, I asked both of them to separate and not interact with one another.

“In 2017, Representative Kazarian requested a meeting which I accommodated.  She wanted to discuss her bill assignments and hearings on those bills before the House Judiciary Committee.  I had my policy director, Lynne Urbani, accompany Representative Kazarian to the hearings on those bills. Representative Kazarian was satisfied with this arrangement.

“In 2018, Representative Kazarian requested a meeting which I again accommodated. As in the previous year, she wanted to discuss her bill assignments and hearings on those bills before the House Judiciary Committee. I suggested that Representative Keable not be present for these hearings.  Representative Kazarian expressed repeatedly her enthusiastic satisfaction with this arrangement.  I have not heard anything from Representative Kazarian to indicate that she was unhappy with these accommodations.  

“In every session, there arises conflicts of many kinds between representatives.  When I am made aware of issues, I pride myself in trying to resolve them expeditiously.  I find it suspicious that one week before an election, reports are surfacing about events which date back many years involving these representatives.  This is clearly another attempt by the ultra-progressives to impact this election cycle.”

Stay with Eyewitness News and WPRI.com for much more on this developing story.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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