SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 29, 2013

Fire chief's assistant sues Peabody

Firefighters, mayor named in sexual harassment complaint

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — The administrative assistant to fire Chief Steve Pasdon has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging that she was sexually harassed and threatened with termination over an incident last November involving sex toys.

Barbara Debruyckere’s suit names former Deputy Chief Eric Harrison as the man who harassed her by displaying the sex toys at work and telling her to take them to Pasdon’s office. She faulted Pasdon, Deputy Chief Ronald Ciampa and Mayor Ted Bettencourt for failing to respond promptly to his behavior.

In a written statement, Bettencourt replied, “A full investigation was undertaken by our legal department. ... A disciplinary action hearing was initiated by my office as required by law. Prior to the hearing, the city reached an agreement with Eric Harrison for his immediate separation of employment from the Peabody Fire Department. The City of Peabody acted appropriately and consistent with city policy and state law. We will defend the case accordingly.”

In the complaint, filed on Debruyckere’s behalf by attorney John Slattery, Debruyckere says that on Nov. 15, 2012, she went to the fire alarm office on business and encountered a group of male firefighters. “Harrison, with a smirk on his face and holding a shipping type manila envelope, said to Ms. Debruyckere in front of all the men, ‘Barbara, we are all adults here, aren’t we?’ Harrison and the other men in the room began to smirk, snicker and stare at her,” the complaint said.

She responded, “Yes we are, but I’m the only woman here,” according to her filing.

Then, Harrison took the sex toys out of the envelope, she said.

“All the men present were laughing and staring at Ms. Debruyckere at this point,” the complaint said. She reported feeling “humiliated, embarrassed and sick to her stomach” and said she could not catch her breath. Harrison told her the items were discovered in the locker of a retired firefighter, then handed the envelope to her and told her to put it on the chief’s desk — something, she said, he could have done himself.

After sharing her concerns with fellow employee Donna Zellen, she put the envelope on Pasdon’s desk. Afterward, Debruyckere said, Ciampa, then a lieutenant, appeared to say that Harrison “has had a change of heart and he wants the envelope back.” He added, “We are all going to forget about this.”

“No, I am not going to forget about this,” Zellen replied.

Ciampa is said to have tossed the envelope in a Dumpster, which the complaint characterized as “intentionally and purposefully destroying evidence.”

When Debruyckere complained to the chief, Pasdon “screamed and yelled at her and threatened to fire her” because she had taken a call from a former firefighter and discussed the matter, the complaint said. The chief said he was aware of the incident and that it was on his orders that Ciampa had been told to get the material off his desk, according to the complaint. Later, the complaint said, he told Debruyckere that Harrison had been spoken to and “would be apologizing to her.”

Debruyckere said she never received an apology. She contacted the mayor’s office because she was afraid of losing her job, she said. She faulted both Bettencourt and Pasdon for not promptly relaying all this to the city officials designated to handle complaints of sexual harassment. Instead, she said, Harrison was given new responsibilities “on or about April 1,” while her responsibilities were curtailed and the chief showed continued hostility. Harrison resigned prior to a hearing in June.

Debruyckere also faulted Pasdon for an incident in which the chief drove his girlfriend to Kappy’s Liquors, where Debruyckere held a second job and where the girlfriend went purposely to her register, shouted an obscenity and made an obscene gesture, the complaint said.

“Ms. Debruyckere has been under constant threat of the loss of her job,” according to the complaint, suffering from “daily panic attacks, stress anxiety and stress-related insomnia.” The complaint said she has been out of work since the end of May.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which received the complaint Aug. 5, will investigate it.

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.