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Comments by councilman caught on tape are ‘hurtful and disrespectful,’ council president says

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The human resources investigation into Councilman Michael Correia includes recorded conversations about a transgender activist and a fellow councilperson among others, according to excerpts of recordings obtained by Target 12.

The recordings, which Target 12 reported in October are part of a new HR probe into the longtime Democratic councilman, are a part of the “multiple complaints” the city says are currently being investigated internally.

In a snippet of one conversation recorded inside a council office in City Hall, Correia is heard talking with staffers about Justice Gaines, a transgender activist who frequently engages with the council, and once ran for City Council herself.

The group is discussing a news article that says Gaines might run for council again, to fill a seat vacated by Councilman Seth Yurdin in January of this year.

A staffer quotes directly from the article: “‘She’s considering taking another shot.’”

“He’s still working on developing his breasts and everything,” Correia says.

“What was his name before? Justin?” the staffer asks, continuing to use male pronouns. 

“Listen, you got to be careful,” Correia interjects, mentioning that Gaines is involved with an activist group that includes lawyer Shannah Kurland.

“So what do you call this person if he wins?” The staffer asks. “Councilperson?”

“An it,” Correia said. “It.”

Target 12 brought the recording to Gaines and asked what she thought of the conversation.

“I was hurt and upset and sad,” she said in an interview. “To have a city councilman mocking or making light of my pronouns or what being transgender means, when there are people in his ward who he represents who he’s supposed to be fighting for who are like me, who are trans women, who are nonbinary … that’s upsetting.”

Gaines said she has been out as transgender for five years and is always willing to help people understand what pronouns to use to refer to her. But she didn’t interpret the clip as somebody just being confused.

“You don’t refer to people as ‘it,’” she said. “In that clip they read the article that uses ‘she’ pronouns and then there’s a continual use of ‘he.”

Gaines works for the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) and sat on the City Council’s working group to create the Providence Community-Police Relations Act (formerly known as the Community Safety Act) in 2017. She ran for the Ward 1 City Council seat in 2018, and considered running again when the seat opened up this year but ultimately decided against it.

“For a city councilor to worry about whether I have breasts, it’s disgusting,” Gaines said. “When instead he should be focused on making the city a better place for his residents of Ward 6 and the rest of the residents in the city, including transgender residents.” 

Target 12 sat down with Correia and his attorney Artin Coloian and played the four obtained excerpts, which represent only some of the tapes recorded by a so-far-unidentified City Council staff member.

“I don’t think I offended anybody in any way,” Correia said in response to the recording about Gaines. “I hope nobody in the office has offended anybody in any way.” 

“I’m concerned about my civil rights,” he added. “And other people’s civil rights that have been violated with these illegal recordings.”

Correia and Coloian have repeatedly maintained the councilman was illegally recorded inside City Hall, but multiple people familiar with the recordings told Target 12 the person who taped them never left the council office, and was a party to the conversations, in line with the state’s one-party consent law. 

No one violated any city policies by recording people in the council office, spokesperson Patricia Socarras said, and HR has not forwarded any part of their investigation to law enforcement.

Providence Police and Rhode Island State Police confirmed they have not received any complaints or requests to investigate recordings in the council office.

Another one of the brief audio clips obtained by Target 12 references Nirva LaFortune, the city councilor for Ward 3.

“Who does this look like?” Correia asks in the tape.

“Nirva LaFortune?” a staffer replies.

“Can you Google Steve Urkel,” he says, prompting a reaction from people in the room.

“You’re gonna get us all fired,” one person says.

LaFortune told Target 12 she heard about the recordings several months ago.

“There is too much happening in the city for me to spend time entertaining the councilman’s disparaging remarks about me,” she said in a text message, adding that she reached out to Council President Sabina Matos to discuss it earlier this fall. “At this point, this is a situation for Council President Matos and Councilman Correia’s constituents to decide if this is the type of behavior they want to see in their leadership.”

Asked to explain his comments, Correia denied insulting his council colleague.

“I’m not making fun of anybody,” Correia said after listening to the tape. “I didn’t mention anybody’s name.”

These are the four excerpts of audio recordings obtained by Target 12 from inside the council office. Expletives have been removed. Story continues below.

In the two other recordings, is it not clear whom Correia is speaking about. In one, he complains about an unnamed woman.

“You deal with her, because I’ll throw her over the [expletive] river,” Correia said. “They insist, ‘she wants to go have a coffee, she wants to meet with you.’ … The only way I’ll meet with her is if I can go somewhere and they give me the hottest pot of coffee that I can throw on her and I’ll give her a 9th degree burn if there is ever one.”

Correia said he does not recall who he was speaking about in that tape, but after hearing it back, acknowledged: “I probably could’ve used better language and better conduct.”

The fourth recording that is part of the HR complaint requires more context to understand.

“Old school, just break his fingers and he won’t be able to spray anymore, I’ll look the other way,” Correia says about an unnamed person. “So what can we do? Can we go pay a visit to his house?” He then references tactics used in the television show Chicago PD.

“It sounds like they’re joking around,” offered Coloian in the interview.

As President Pro-Tem of the council, Correia is a member of Council President Sabina Matos’ leadership team. She condemned his remarks Monday night.

“Councilman Correia engaged in hurtful and disrespectful conversation in those audios,” Matos said in a statement to Target 12. “The council office and those who serve the public set an example for our larger community.”

“I spoke to Councilman Correia regarding this matter,” she added. “This speech is unacceptable and I urged him to use respectful language and to issue an apology.”

Action by Matos appears to be one of the few avenues of recourse for this situation, as Correia is not a traditional city employee. While human resources is still investigating the matter, the department cannot fire, suspend or otherwise discipline an elected official put in his or her position by voters. 

But the HR department can speak to an elected official about inappropriate behavior — if an investigation deems that necessary — and can take steps to protect city employees who make complaints against the official. 

A spokesperson said HR is interviewing people involved in the complaints against Correia. The city declined to divulge the content of the complaints.

Correia has taken one action in response to the HR probe — through his attorney — issuing subpoenas to the council’s former chief of staff Erlin Rogel, deputy chief of staff for communications Billy Kepner and human resources director Emmanuel Echevarria.

While the subpoenas were issued as part of a separate legal battle between Correia and former deputy DPW director Michael McKenna, Coloian confirmed he issued them because of the council office recordings and HR complaints, in an effort to see if there was a connection.

The subpoenas — to which all three men have filed objections — seek their communications referencing Correia since July 1.

The Providence Ethics Commission is still investigating Correia, according to Chairman Andrew Kanter, despite the fact that McKenna recently asked that his name be removed from the complaint he made 15 months ago as he continues to pursue legal avenues including a potential whistleblower complaint against the city.

“The Commission had already decided that the allegations, if true, could constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics and warranted an investigation,” Kanter said. “The matter was referred to an investigator and that investigation is ongoing.”

The complaint alleged that Correia tried to get McKenna demoted by eliminating his position during the council’s budget process, and improperly used his position as chair of the Public Works Committee to jump the line to get DPW work done in his ward.

Correia has acknowledged he wanted to eliminate McKenna’s job, but said it was because the city didn’t need a deputy DPW director. He has otherwise denied the allegations and filed a countersuit in court.

The climate of the council 

Councilor Rachel Miller, D-Ward 13, says she has two takeaways after hearing the recordings.

One concern, she said, “is that someone on staff feels like there’s not a way to address comments that are bullying, or could be considered racially biased … or transphobic, that there’s not a way to address that in an open climate outside of secret recordings.”

She said the conversations also “undermine trust” with the public, and the words used “could be seen as unwelcoming, that is definitely seen as hurtful,” regardless of intent.

She noted that the council often strives to be inclusive, mentioning a time when she spoke about Pride Month on the council floor last year and her council colleagues stood and applauded her own coming out story.

That same attitude should be used behind closed doors, she said.

“We want respect in all of those places, where the sun shines and where it doesn’t,” Miller said.

Matos said she is committed “to ensure that the City Council staff feel supported and valued and that the council office provides a harassment free workplace.”

Correia – who was elected to office in 2010 to represent the Manton and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods – is term-limited from running for re-election in 2022. He said he remains committed to his constituents.

“I like what I do for my neighborhood,” Correia said. “My constituents know my reputation. It’s sad that all this is going on. … That somebody in there is doing these illegal recordings.”

“It’s not going to stop me from doing my job that I got elected to do,” he added. “That’s to represent the people of Ward 6 and every other taxpayer in this great city.”

The council held a previously planned leadership training session over Zoom on Monday night that focused in part on diversity and inclusion.

At the end of the meeting, Matos asked the council staffers to reflect upon their jobs over the holidays, and how they can best serve the people of Providence.

“What are the things that you need to do your job better?” She asked them to share with council leadership. “What are the things that need to change? We want to hear about that.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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