PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Less than a day after Target 12 reported on secret audio recordings of comments made by City Councilman Michael Correia, the longtime councilman issued an apology on Facebook.
Several of Correia’s council colleagues and Mayor Jorge Elorza have also condemned his remarks, with one councilor calling for him to step down from his leadership position as President Pro-Tem and consider resigning.
Correia, a Democrat who has represented the Manton and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods since 2011, had been captured on audio recordings making comments inside the council office that were described as “hurtful and disrespectful” by Council President Sabina Matos. They included a conversation about Justice Gaines, a transgender woman, activist and former City Council candidate.
“As someone who has spent the greater part of my adult life serving my community and city, I regret that my words may have hurt anyone in the LGBTQIA community, my friends, family colleagues and constituents in that community,” Correia said in the Facebook post. “I know that LGBTQIA people struggle, face discrimination and abuse and to think that I may have somehow contributed to that sentiment is unacceptable and for that I truly apologize.”
“I would like to personally apologize to Justice Gaines for any hurt that I may have inflicted on her,” he continued. “My words were flippant and inappropriate as a leader and as a person.”
The comments represent an about-face from Correia’s original reaction to the tapes when Target 12 interviewed him about them earlier this fall.
“I don’t think I offended anybody in any way,” Correia said when presented with the tape about Gaines. “I’m concerned about my civil rights, and other people’s civil rights that have been violated with these illegal recordings.”
In his apology, Correia also suggested some of the comments were made in jest.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I may from time to time try to joke around but I would do anything to help someone who needed it regardless of who they are or their station in life,” Correia continued.
Listen to the four excerpts of recordings here. Story continues below.
The all-Democratic council’s two top leaders — Council President Sabina Matos and Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan — have both condemned the remarks.
“It’s shocking and disappointing,” Ryan said Wednesday morning, prior to Correia’s new statement. She called on him to issue an apology, and said she was dismayed at Correia’s initial reaction to the tapes.
“I think that fact that the councilman is talking about his civil rights … that’s way out there,” Ryan said. “I don’t know where he’s going with that.”
Councilman David Salvatore, a former council president who is not a member of the current leadership team, thought Correia should go further than apologizing.
“He should consider stepping down from his leadership position and also resigning from the City Council,” Salvatore said. “The city of Providence is a diverse population, and when language like that is used to the general public I am concerned we could be empowering people of the public to act in a similar manner.”
Mayor Jorge Elorza also weighed in Wednesday, criticizing the comments captured secretly on recordings in City Hall.
“This type of language is absolutely irresponsible and has no place in our city, especially from a member of the City Council and I condemn the language used in these recordings,” Elorza said in a statement. “While the details of the matter are under investigation by HR, we must collectively denounce this type of behavior in our city and in our workplace.”
Matos, who told Target 12 earlier this week she had urged Correia to apologize, also issued a lengthy new statement on Wednesday, further denouncing Correia’s comments but stopping short of asking for him to step down from leadership.
“In public service, there should be zero tolerance for haphazard comments that divide and hurt,” Matos said. “Furthermore, as elected leaders and de facto supervisors of our hardworking staff, we should exemplify noble service both publicly and privately.”
“The comments made by Councilman Correia are not only unprofessional, but are extremely harmful to our LGBTQIA+ community and our Council staff who were subjected to them,” Matos said.
Matos also said she was aware of a complaint from a council staff member about Correia even before she knew about the secret recordings, writing that she took “immediate action.”
“I reached out to him and coordinated several meetings with him imploring him to be mindful of his words and reflect on the impact they may have on staff morale,” Matos said, adding she invited him to meet with her and the city’s human resources director, but he did not attend.
In his apology statement, Correia asked for sensitivity training for council members and staff, which Matos called a “first step.”
Matos said she was in contact with human resources about doing such training, and noted the council held a leadership training earlier this week that included a segment on diversity and inclusion.
Ryan called it “alarming” that a staff member felt they needed to make the recording in the first place.
“That screams to me that there’s an issue that they felt they didn’t have any way to escalate,” she said.
Councilor Rachel Miller expressed similar concerns, sayin she was concerned “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.”
Matos said she has spoken to staff and “reiterated my open door policy on matters negatively affecting their workplace and morale.”
In the recordings obtained by Target 12, Correia is heard in the council office talking with staffers about Gaines, who was considered running for the Ward 1 council seat vacated by Seth Yurdin earlier 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.
“So what do you call this person if he wins?” The staffer asks. “Councilperson?”
“An it,” Correia said. “It.”
Gaines told Target 12 she was hurt by the remarks.
“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,” she said in an interview.
The four recordings are part of a human resources investigation that is still ongoing, and a city spokesperson said HR would not comment on the details of the complaints.
But human resources has determined the act of recording someone in the council office did not violate city policy, and has not referred any part of its investigation over to law enforcement.
Providence Police and R.I. State Police also said they have not been asked to investigate the tapes.
Correia and his attorney Artin Coloian have repeatedly referred to the recordings as illegal. Coloian declined to comment on whether he has made that complaint to law enforcement.