Mattiello defends handling of sexual-harassment allegation against Keable

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) - Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Tuesday night defended his handling of a sexual-harassment allegation against one of his top lieutenants, saying he had limited information and kept the matter quiet out of respect for the lawmaker who complained.

"It's not State House business," Mattiello said, speaking by phone in his first interview with Eyewitness News since the Target 12 Investigators broke the story Monday.

"Lawmakers are social like every other human being, and after session, they go out at night," he said. "I think when they go out, that is not part of what we would call a workplace. And I think they have to act appropriately with one another; to the extent that they don't, we have a process. But you certainly can't supervise and monitor and keep an eye on what's going on outside the building."

Mattiello's comments came a day after Target 12 revealed a March 11 email in which state Rep. Katherine Kazarian, 28, told the speaker she had "endured years of sexual harassment" by fellow Rep. Cale Keable, 42. Mattiello removed Keable as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee 90 minutes after the story aired.

Kazarian has said the email speaks for itself and declined further comment, while a lawyer for Keable on Tuesday denied that he harassed her. Mattiello has acknowledged Kazarian first complained about Keable to him in 2015, and that after that conversation he told Keable she no longer wanted to have any contact with him.

Mattiello said he lacked "specific facts" that would have allowed him to do more. "When she addressed the situation with me, there was no evidence of sexual harassment," he said. "So you don't take any action when there's no evidence." He added, "Both sides are entitled to a fair hearing process, and both sides are entitled to having all the facts come out."

(Multiple lawmakers have told Target 12 that Kazarian possesses text messages sent by Keable in which he makes harassing comments to her that are not reciprocated. "I know she has text messages," Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Wakefield, told Target 12. "I've never seen the texts, but she's told me about them.")

Asked why he hadn't removed Keable 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."

The speaker also recalled of his 2015 conversation with Kazarian, "She made some very general statements at that point with no specificity but did not want to go forward, and there was no evidence within her statement of sexual harassment." He said March was the first time she used the phrase "sexual harassment."

Mattiello also revealed that a different female House member approached him in January to say she had been sexually harassed by a male House member.

The speaker did not identify either lawmaker but said the male who was accused is not returning to the House after this year's election, indicating he is retiring or was defeated in a primary. He also said the female lawmaker was neither Kazarian nor state Rep. Teresa Tanzi, who last year also complained about being harassed.

"That's the only complaint that I've actually had come in as a complaint with a request to take action," Mattiello said of the unnamed incident in January. He said "a lot of people were present" when it happened, and he was "satisfied" with how it was resolved.

Mattiello is facing criticism from many quarters over the revelation about how he handled Kazarian's complaints, but he dismissed it all as "politically motivated" by groups and individuals who want him to lose his re-election race a week from now. He also insisted he has enough support from House Democrats to remain as speaker if voters in Cranston give him another two-year term.

State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a Providence Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor this year, is among those who have corroborated Kazarian's story.

"Katie Kazarian spoke with me repeatedly about having faced a sustained pattern of harassment, which clearly had an impact on her," Regunberg told Target 12 in an email. "While she discussed her discomfort in private, she never wanted her traumatic experiences to be made public."

"But I know that - to stand up for herself and her constituents - she took the issue to Speaker Mattiello on multiple occasions," Regunberg continued. "My understanding is there was no real action taken."

Mattiello insists he "made accommodations" for Kazarian by ordering Keable to avoid her in 2015; by having one of his aides accompany Kazarian when she had to testify in front of Keable in 2017; and by making Keable leave the hearing when Kazarian testified in front of his committee again earlier this year.

Kim Kalunian (kkalunian@wpri.com) is a reporter for Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

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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