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Keable’s alleged sexual harassment was widely known in RI House

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Seven months ago, state Rep. Katherine Kazarian sat down and wrote an email to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello seeking help. It was not the first time she had reached out to him.

“As we have discussed,” Kazarian told Mattiello in the March 11 message, “I have endured years of sexual harassment by House Judiciary Chairperson, Cale Keable.”

Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, was first elected in 2012 when she was 22, soon after her graduation from Columbia University. Keable, a married Burrillville Democrat 14 years her senior, was first elected in 2010. Keable has been a key member of Mattiello’s leadership team for his entire tenure as speaker.

In the email, Kazarian expressed concern about how Keable would handle her bills when she came before his committee – particularly one to make schools into gun-free zones – and she suggested she was already unhappy with the speaker’s handling of the matter.

“Last year,” Kazarian told Mattiello, “you did not grant my request to have the bills moved to a different committee despite the years of harassment. As a result I had to testify in front of him.” She went on to argue that Keable had “berated and retaliated against” her witness during the bill’s hearing the previous year, citing The Providence Journal’s account.

“I do not wish to be put in that position again,” Kazarian wrote.

Kazarian’s email was obtained and authenticated late this month by the Target 12 Investigators. Mattiello’s office on Monday denied an Access to Public Records Act request to release its own copy of the email, saying it is exempt from disclosure.

Kazarian has declined to comment further on Keable’s behavior, saying the email “speaks for itself.”

Keable insists he never harassed Kazarian. In a statement Tuesday his lawyer, Kathleen Hagerty, said that the pair had “a close platonic friendship” until early 2015 and “it is difficult to respond in any meaningful way to the allegation” because of an inability “to gather any specifics or details.”

“As there are no legal proceedings of any kind pending involving Representative Keable relating to this allegation, it seems that it will be left to the public to decide if a statement of this kind, without any proof or evidence of truth, can be sufficient to achieve its obvious political objective,” Hagerty said. She said she would have no further comment for now.

Keable’s law firm put him on administrative leave after its top attorneys learned about Kazarian’s email, and Mattiello removed Keable as chairman of his powerful committee 90 minutes after Target 12 reported the law firm’s move Monday night.

Asked Tuesday night why he waited until now to remove Keable rather than doing so when he first received the email in March, Mattiello said, “Right now, in fairness to everybody, we have a conclusory statement with no facts, but I thought that because it is now public, and her desire to keep it private was frustrated, that I could take the action I took.” He also said she never previously used the specific words “sexual harassment” with him in their discussions dating back to 2015.

‘She’s been visibly upset about this’

Yet in interviews with Eyewitness News over the last week, 12 current and former state lawmakers confirmed that Kazarian’s complaints about Keable’s behavior have been widely known and discussed in the House for years.

Most said they had limited firsthand knowledge of what had transpired between the two, but those who did described inappropriate comments in text messages and at social gatherings. Five said Kazarian still has copies of Keable’s text messages, with state Rep. Edith Ajello saying she understands them to be “extraordinarily offensive and awful.”

State Rep. Carol McEntee acknowledged she had not seen the texts herself, but said, “I believe what she tells me. I know she has text messages. She’s tried very hard to be very professional and private about this, but I know she’s been struggling with it. … She’s been visibly upset about this. It’s terrible.”

Former state Rep. Maria Cimini, who served with Keable and Kazarian before she was defeated by a Mattiello-backed challenger in 2014, said she was also told about his text messages to Kazarian. “People knew widely that it was very upsetting to Katie,” she said.

State Rep. Ray Hull said he recalled being concerned about Keable’s behavior toward Kazarian one evening in 2014 or 2015 when a group of representatives were getting dinner at the restaurant Capriccio’s during a break in that day’s legislative session.

“I remember her being upset afterwards,” Hull said. “Keable was really giving her a hard time.”

Hull said he could not remember exactly what Keable said, but recalled thinking, “What the hell are you bothering her for? She’s a young girl. What are you doing, married man? … I knew she was upset.” Hull did not confront Keable, he said, because Kazarian made clear to him she wanted to “handle it herself.”

Others described a different incident between the two on another evening when legislators were out to dinner together, this one in early 2015 at Silvio’s in Johnston. They said Kazarian angrily confronted Keable over comments he was making at the dinner. Mattiello’s office said she first approached him to complain about Keable’s behavior after that incident.

State Rep. Thomas Winfield said his understanding of Kazarian’s complaint was that Keable had “said something inappropriate” to her, and some effort was then made to rectify it.

“I believe – I’m trying to think of who it was – but it was said to Cale, ‘Smarten up. You’re not in high school anymore.’ I don’t think it was those exact words, but kind of, ‘You’re a smart guy. Don’t be stupid.’ … I don’t think it was an isolated event. I think Cale had done a couple of things. It was like, come on. Smarten up.”

Mattiello cites efforts to assist Kazarian

Mattiello insists he has “made accommodations” to assist Kazarian since early 2015, when he first became aware that what he understood at the time to be a “close” friendship between Kazarian and Keable “had ended.”

That year, Mattiello says he “asked both of them to separate and not interact with one another.” After another meeting with Kazarian in 2017, he had his policy director, Lynne Urbani, accompany Kazarian when she had to testify in front of Keable. And after her email this year, he made Keable leave the hearing when Kazarian testified in front of his committee.

Yet multiple lawmakers also tell Target 12 they believe Mattiello mishandled the situation. A key moment was in the fall of 2016, when Mattiello was deciding who should take over as House majority leader after John DeSimone was defeated in a primary.

State Rep. Teresa Tanzi said she organized a group of Democrats who threatened to go public about Kazarian’s allegations if Keable was promoted. She said Kazarian called Mattiello when she got wind that Keable was being considered. “Katie said that it would not go smoothly if he were to be named as majority leader, and the speaker conceded that, because he’d been getting all the calls and then the flurry of texts,” Tanzi said.

Mattiello’s spokesman declined to confirm or deny whether the conversation happened. But in a statement, the speaker insisted Keable was never a strong contender for the job. Mattiello chose Joe Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat.

“There were several candidates who asked to be considered for majority leader,” Mattiello said in a statement Wednesday. “In my review, Joe Shekarchi stood out above the others for many reasons and he was my clear choice.”

Recalling that period, House Labor Committee Chairman Robert Craven said he was “aware that a conversation took place between Cale Keable and the speaker in reference to his potential candidacy as House majority leader” in which Craven said Keable was told “it wasn’t going to happen because of Katherine Kazarian’s complaints about his behaviors.”

However, Representative Winfield said there were “a plethora” of individuals considered for majority leader, and that he believed Keable cited Kazarian as an excuse to explain why he’d been passed over.

“I’m quite confident that it was Cale giving cover for him not getting the job,” Winfield said. Shekarchi “was a much more palatable candidate than Cale was,” he added.

Kazarian went back to Mattiello in 2017 and again in 2018 to discuss Keable.

Mattiello acknowledges that in both years, he refused Kazarian’s request to move her bill on gun-free schools out of Keable’s committee to another, such as the Health, Education and Welfare Committee. State Rep. Stephen Ucci was one of several lawmakers who heard about Kazarian’s request at the time, and he said Mattiello should have granted it.

“Bills get moved all the time,” Ucci said. “It wasn’t an unreasonable request.”

Mattiello has said gun bills must stay before the Judiciary Committee, and told The Providence Journal on Tuesday night he did not want to inconvenience gun activists by making them come to the State House and testify before a different committee on Kazarian’s bill when they were already going before Judiciary for other ones.

‘She was six years in purgatory’

Tanzi argued that Mattiello put Kazarian in an impossible position by keeping one of her highest-priority bills in a committee chaired by Keable, considering Mattiello had explicitly barred the two from communicating with each other.

“You need to have those relationships with leadership,” Tanzi said. “You need to have the ability to have a meeting with the chair of the committee to move your bill forward. If it’s perceived – even hinted at – that you’ve lost your juice in that building, you may as well stay home.”

Tanzi also argued Kazarian’s decision to complain about Keable to Mattiello in 2015 permanently damaged her standing with House Democratic leadership. “She was six years in purgatory,” Tanzi said. “Because she was a victim.”

Mattiello has argued lawmakers like Tanzi and McEntee, who have emerged as opponents of his speakership, are using the Keable revelation to damage him in the final days of his tough re-election race as part of a bid by the left to get him out of office.

“This is clearly another attempt by the ultra-progressives to impact this election cycle,” Mattiello said.

McEntee rejected that idea.

“I am a liberal but I am pro-business and Speaker Mattiello is well aware of that,” she said. “My grandfather started Bald Hill Dodge Chrysler Jeep Kia almost 70 years ago – obviously it wasn’t named that then – but we employ over 150 people. He knows my concern for business in Rhode Island and to call me overly left is absurd.”

“If his recent removal of Rep. Keable from his chairmanship is the right thing to do then he should have done this in March,” she added.

Critics have questioned why Kazarian or her allies did not go public sooner about their allegations against Keable. Lawmakers close to Kazarian uniformly said she had always told them she thought she would be better off trying to handle the situation privately with Mattiello.

“I knew she was capable of handling it the way she wanted to handle it,” said state Rep. Joy Hearn. “She just wanted to make sure her bills got heard respectfully and properly, dealing with it the way that she wanted to deal with it as a professional legislator.”

Ajello said, “I was following her desires, which I understood to be to keep her complaints as quiet and below the radar as possible.” She added, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that I would say Katie Kazarian should have done differently. …. From what I’ve seen, and it’s really what I’ve seen, complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault have not been taken as seriously at the State House as they should be.”

McEntee, who serves on the Judiciary Committee with Keable, said she was saddened by the situation.

“I don’t want to hurt Cale. I don’t feel that way at all. And I feel bad about this whole thing,” McEntee said. “But Katie shouldn’t have to feel like she can’t get her bills passed and she can’t go in front of the committee because of who the chairman is and because of several incidents that happened between them. It’s just not right. It’s wrong.”

Representative Hearn, who is retiring this year after a decade in the House, said the controversy could benefit the chamber over the long term, by demonstrating to top House Democrats that they are still operating too much as “a boys’ club.”

“Women need to be promoted more, included more,” Hearn said. “The evenings of cigar-smoking at 2 in the morning in an environment where no women were invited – c’mon, guys. Make it more inclusive. It can only help the institution.”

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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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