Rick Chiarelli committed 'incomprehensible incidents of harassment' against staff, report finds

After a year-long investigation, Ottawa’s integrity commissioner is recommending RIck Chiarelli, the city’s longest-serving councillor, be severely restricted in engaging in municipal government and have his pay suspended until next November.

Warning: Some readers may find details in this story offensive or upsetting

The behaviour of College Coun. Rick Chiarelli, seen here at Ottawa City Hall in 2019, was a 'shocking and astounding failure' to treat his former staff members with dignity and respect, according to the second of two reports from the city's integrity commissioner. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

After a year-long investigation into allegations of Coun. Rick Chiarelli's inappropriate and sexually charged behaviour in the workplace, Ottawa's integrity commissioner is recommending the city's longest-serving councillor be severely restricted in engaging in municipal government and have his pay suspended until November 2021.

"I conclude that [Chiarelli's] conduct is a shocking and astounding failure to treat the complainants with the respect they were due and required of him by the code of conduct," wrote Robert Marleau in a report that was released Friday and does not mince words about Chiarelli's behaviour.

"These are incomprehensible incidents of harassment."

This is the second damning report from the integrity commissioner this year, after five women filed formal complaints about the College ward councillor in the fall of 2019. Almost three dozen people were interviewed for the investigation.

A shocking and astounding failure to treat the complainants with the respect they were due. ​- City of Ottawa integrity commissioner Robert Marleau


The findings were split into two parts. The first was released in July and focused on three job applicants who said they were asked about going braless to events and hitting on men in bars to sign them as volunteers, and were shown photos on Chiarelli's cellphone of women in revealing clothing.

The latest report addressed the complaints of two former staff members who worked for Chiarelli at different times. They say the councillor — among other things — talked about their bodies, suggested they not wear bras to events, pressed them to tell him intimate details of their lives and routinely reminded them they could be fired at any time.

In one instance, Chiarelli is accused of buying one complainant drinks at a bar until 2 a.m. while pressuring her to participate in his volunteer recruitment scheme, which she was to keep secret.

Coun. Rick Chiarelli was allowed to participate in the discussion on the integrity commissioner's first report about his misconduct in July, but not vote. The councillor said he was advised not to comment because of his legal challenge against the city. (Rogers TV broadcast of council)

100s of pages of texts, documents

The integrity commissioner found that the complaints were credible, largely because they were either witnessed by others, bolstered by women who reported similar experiences, or backed up by documentary evidence included in a 283-page appendix to the main report.

A former staffer kept the flimsy white top that she says Coun. Rick Chiarelli gave her to wear to an event. The young woman's mother refused to let her wear it. (City of Ottawa Integrity Commissioner's report)

One witness— a woman who worked for Chiarelli for two months in 2018 — said the councillor suggested she go braless by telling her others had done so. Although she refused, he did meet her at Chances R so that she could try on clothing he provided for an upcoming Canada Day event, according to a text message included in the appendix.

According to the report, the former staffer said Chiarelli wanted her to wear a Canada Day shirt that he had brought "that was so revealing that her breasts were barely covered." 

Instead, she selected a diaphanous white top with spaghetti straps because she thought it was the least revealing of the options Chiarelli had provided. She didn't go to the Canada Day event, but Chiarelli told her to wear the top to Bluesfest instead.

In the end, the young woman's mother made her change because she "could not represent the City of Ottawa dressed in such revealing clothing," according to the report. The woman quit weeks after the incident, but kept the white top — a photo of which is included in the appendix.

Marleau has kept the names of the complainants and witnesses confidential, as is the usual process for these reports, although he writes that the women expect Chiarelli will know who they are from their testimony.

Chiarelli denies allegations

Chiarelli has denied all the allegations and is challenging the jurisdiction of the integrity commissioner in court, where he is also arguing that council is biased against him.

In October 2019, Chiarelli released a public statement in which he stated: "I can say, without reservation, that I have never treated a member of my staff (including job candidates) in a sexually harassing, discriminatory, or inappropriate 'gender-based' fashion." 

Chiarelli underwent bypass surgery in December 2019, several months after the inquiry was underway.  He did not participate in the investigation, and was last given a chance to respond to allegations in writing earlier this month by the integrity commissioner's lawyer.

The councillor did not reply to the offer.

On Friday afternoon, the councillor's office sent out a statement — even before the report was made public — that he is awaiting the outcome of the judicial review.

"Councillor Rick Chiarelli looks forward to his day in court and a fair, legitimate process where both sides are heard and evidence is tested," said the statement. "That process is now under way, and, on the advice of his lawyers, he will refrain from comment until the appropriate time."

During integrity commission investigation, Coun. Rick Chiarelli posts video update on health and COVID-19 

3 years ago
Duration 1:45
In this video, posted on March 22, Chiarelli provided an update on his own health and COVID-19 in College Ward.  

Marleau recommends Chiarelli be stripped of powers

Marleau said that in light of the evidence and the testimony of dozens of people, Chiarelli's denial is "simply unbelievable".

The most serious sanction the integrity commissioner can recommend against a councillor found to have contravened the council's code of conduct is a three-month suspension of pay.

That's what he recommended in his earlier report, and council agreed to dock Chiarelli's salary for nine months — three for each of the initial complainants.

Citing Chiarelli's "disreputable management style as an employer and his offensive personal behaviour," Marleau is again recommending the maximum suspension of pay — three months for each of the two additional complainants — to be added onto his previous sanction. 

That means that Chiarelli won't be paid for 15 months, the equivalent of more than $131,000. 

This time, the integrity commissioner is also recommending that Chiarelli be kicked off all committees, boards and municipal agencies, and that his authority over his own office budget and staff hiring be taken away. These severe measures would relegate Chiarelli to the sidelines of municipal government, although he would still be allowed to participate in council meetings and community events.

Council, which has the final say on Marleau's recommendations, is set to discuss the unprecedented recommendations at its meeting next Wednesday.

Integrity commissioner Robert Marleau is recommending that Rick Chiarelli be stripped of many of his powers as councillor. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Manipulated staff

By now, the disturbing nature of Chiarelli's alleged behaviour is all too familiar.

In a news investigation in the fall of 2019, CBC spoke with more than 20 women and reported the experiences of eight of them. Many of the women CBC interviewed participated in the integrity commissioner's investigation.

But Marleau's report also paints a troubling picture of a councillor who not only made comments of a sexual nature, but who also psychologically manipulated staff by pitting them against each other, abused his position of power, and had an "obsession for the covert sexually exploitive tasking of his staff."

These messages exchanged between Chiarelli and one complainant talk about how the councillor's strategy 'sounded kind of like something from a gangster movie.' (City of Ottawa Integrity Commissioner report)

Chiarelli gave his employees nicknames, often from the spy film Mission Impossible, so that others wouldn't know who was being talked about. He often spoke of needing to recruit "knee cappers" to work undercover in other councillors' offices, or write supportive social media messages or op-eds in the local newspaper.

It's unclear if any such people existed, but Chiarelli discusses the need for these agents in a text exchange with one of the complainants.

He often pressed job applicants and staffers to tell them the worst thing they had ever done, either because the confession would prove they trusted him or to cut off his political opponents from using the information against him.

These allegations are backed up by, in the words of the report, a "significant body of evidence including in email messages to others that [Chiarelli] questioned prospective employees in this regard."

Chiarelli appeared to have purposely sowed deep discord in his office, disparaging one employee to another, claiming workers were not doing their jobs and asking one staffer if another should be replaced.

In a text to one witness, the senior staffer in his office at the time, Chiarelli said his family members wanted him to fire one of the complainants.

Protesters call for Coun. Rick Chiarelli's resignation during the 2020 women's march in Ottawa. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

Normalized 'sexual discourse' in office

The integrity commissioner's investigation found no evidence that points "to unwanted advances or touching" by the councillor, but rather that Chiarelli normalized "sexual discourse" in the office. 

The councillor would often tell people that former staffers had sex in his office, or that a one-time employee performed a sexual act on another councillor in the city hall parking garage.

One of the complainants said Chiarelli had downloaded this photo of her from Instagram onto his cellphone and would show it to people, often in front of her, while commenting on her abs. (City of Ottawa Integrity Commissioner's report)

Chiarelli also told stories about a previous staff member who went on the volunteer-recruiting missions in bars and danced so close to one man that he ejaculated into his pants while on the dance floor. According to the report, Chiarelli said the man was so embarrassed he agreed to volunteer for the office.

One complainant who was into cosplay said when she showed up for her job interview in early 2015, Chiarelli already had a photo on his cell phone of her dressed as a character from a role-playing video game, in a costume that revealed her midriff.

He suggested to her that going braless "could attract a man from across the room."

When she went to work for him, Chiarelli nicknamed her Abigail because of her "abs" and would often show others a different photo from her Instagram account while she was in the room.

According to the report, the complainant said she was suicidal in late 2017 and went on disability leave. She eventually quit.

The other complainant said Chiarelli would often make comments about her body, as evidenced by texts where he refers to her "boobs" and jokes that someone thinks he's "boinking" her.

She went on stress leave last year.

'Exploited the power dynamic'

The integrity commissioner's report also detailed how Chiarelli "systematically exploited the power dynamic of the employer/employee relationship", messaging his staffers at all hours and leaving them in constant fear that they could be fired. 

A text included in Robert Marleau's report in which Coun. Rick Chiarelli talks about Mayor Jim Watson. (City of Ottawa Integrity Commissioner's report)

When one staff member quit, Chiarelli told other staffers repeatedly he'd make sure she never became a police officer — the woman's ultimate ambition.

"His actions represent the classic scenario: the male perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the female victim and abuses that authority in using progressive manipulative strategies to outright control the behaviour and performance of a subordinate," the report read. 

In another exchange, Chiarelli suggested the employee who complained about him may have been a plant by Mayor Jim Watson, whom the councillor referred to as "Betty."

Chiarelli also texted another employee what to say in case an investigation was launched based on the complaints.

He also warned that five to 10 more women with similar complaints may be coming forward, and that they could have been put up to it by the mayor and the city clerk in exchange for paying $5,000 to $6,000.

Chiarelli added that he didn't think that had happened yet, "since none of my spies have tipped me off."

A group that includes some employees of Ottawa city councillors held a silent protest outside council chambers last November. The city has enacted new policies since the reports on Chiarelli's behaviour to better protect staffers. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)