Ottawa·CBC INVESTIGATES

Chiarelli affair has cast 'shadow' over city, mayor says

As Ottawa city council prepares to decide Wednesday whether to grant medical leave to Coun. Rick Chiarelli, a thirteenth woman has come forward with fresh allegations against him.

Council to decide on leave request as 13th woman details new allegations

Mayor Jim Watson says the allegations against Coun. Rick Chiarelli have 'cast this shadow' over the city, and city hall in particular. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Brittany Lees's story is becoming all too familiar.

Two months after she started working for Coun. Rick Chiarelli, he took her on a day trip to Montreal, Lees said. After the meeting at an Italian restaurant, instead of driving straight back to Ottawa, she said Chiarelli took her to a night club, pulled out a little red dress and told her to put it on.

"He was like, 'You're going to go into this club now and you need to go start getting volunteers,'" Lees told CBC. "I was like, what? That was my first reaction, but of course, I'm new. I hadn't even been offered an actual contract yet…. I'm 23, I'm naive."

Lees said she put the dress on in the back of the van and walked into the club. 

"The whole time inside, I remember I just wanted to go home," Lees recalled. "My anxiety was through the roof."

Mayor says Chiarelli allegations have 'cast a shadow' over city hall

CBC News Ottawa

2 years ago
0:55
Mayor Jim Watson says the allegations against Coun. Rick Chiarelli have put his constituents and his fellow councillors in an awkward position.  0:55

That was back in early February 2016. Lees said she worked for Chiarelli for another 16 months until, struggling with ongoing mental health issues and having gained 100 pounds, she finally quit. 

She's since left Ottawa, but heard from the College ward councillor in July when he phoned to ask if she wanted to come back to the office.

During their conversation, Lees said she mentioned that she had lost the weight she'd put on.

"He said, 'That's good … but did you lose your boobs?'"

Brittany Lees worked for Coun. Rick Chiarelli for 18 months. In a phone call inviting her to return to his office in July, Lees said Chiarelli asked about her 'boobs.' (Jean Delisle/CBC)

'A shadow over the whole city'

These latest allegations against the longtime city councillor aren't as shocking as they might have seemed six weeks ago.

That's when CBC's exclusive investigation first revealed Chiarelli had allegedly asked a job applicant if she'd be willing not to wear a bra to work events. Then more women came forward to tell their stories about being sent to strip clubs, asked to wear revealing clothing and asked sexually suggestive questions during interviews.

Thirteen women have now told CBC they experienced or witnessed inappropriate comments and behaviour by Chiarelli. 

The councillor has denied all the allegations. Earlier this month, Chiarelli issued a statement suggesting, among other things, that the accusations are part of a "mob mentality" and an orchestrated political strategy against him.

Lees and Chiarelli appear at a September 2016 event in this photo posted on Facebook. (Photo GioVanni)

But even if Chiarelli's alleged behaviour doesn't astound people as it once might have, the entire affair has raised serious, ongoing questions about the inner workings at Ottawa city hall.

In a wide-ranging interview on the matter, Mayor Jim Watson acknowledged the allegations have "cast this shadow over the whole city, and city hall in particular."

It has also raised uncomfortable questions. Why did no one in power seem to know what was going on in the councillor's office? Why has it taken years for former staffers to come forward? And what happens now to Rick Chiarelli?

That last item will be dealt with — at least partly — on Wednesday, when council will finally resolve the issue of Chiarelli's leave of absence.

Former Chiarelli employee says his statement denying the allegations was 'insulting'

CBC News Ottawa

2 years ago
0:39
Victoria Laaber, who worked for Chiarelli for four years, says he asked her to wear revealing clothing with no bra to certain work events, an allegation Chiarelli denied in a statement. 0:39

'Soul-searching'

In light of the string of accusations against the beleaguered councillor, some complainants and members of the public have called for his resignation. Protestors wrote "Resign Rick" on bras they hung in trees outside city hall, there's a #ResignRick hashtag on Twitter and a Wellington Village restaurant posts daily demands on its sidewalk chalkboard for him to quit.

Absinthe restaurant weighs in on the Rick Chiarelli story. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Chiarelli is showing no signs he plans to resign, however, and no one can force him out. Still, a councillor does have to show up for work once in a while. Under the Ontario Municipal Act, if Chiarelli misses three months of council meetings, his seat will be declared vacant unless he gets express permission from council to be away.

Chiarelli has twice asked council to grant him leave for unspecified medical reasons, and twice his colleagues have put off the decision. Revelations that the councillor was vacationing in Prague in August, just two days after he said he was rushed to the emergency room for his still-unspecified illness, likely didn't help Chiarelli's case. 

On the one hand, we try to accommodate someone who's legitimately ill. On the other hand, I think there's some doubt as to whether this would be a good decision.- Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson

As the mayor put it, the councillor's story "doesn't always jive."

At the time, Chiarelli told CBC three doctors advised him that "it would be more beneficial to leave town and visit family in the Czech Republic than stay home in bed alone." 

"There's a lot of soul-searching going on around the council table," Watson told CBC. "On the one hand, we try to accommodate someone who's legitimately ill. On the other hand, I think there's some doubt as to whether this would be a good decision."

If council takes the unprecedented step of not approving his leave, Chiarelli would have to show up to council before the end of November to keep his seat.

In the meantime, CBC has confirmed that at least four official complaints have been filed with Robert Marleau, the city's integrity commissioner, but his report isn't expected for many months. 

If Marleau does find the councillor has violated the code of conduct, the most serious penalty he can recommend is that Chiarelli be docked 90 days' pay.

Through all of this, Chiarelli continues to collect his $105,000 annual salary.

Victoria Laaber worked for Chiarelli for four years. (Victoria Laaber)

How did no one know?

Both the number and nature of the accusations against Chiarelli have shaken city hall insiders and outside observers alike. How could this alleged behaviour have gone on for so long without anyone having an inkling?

One possible explanation is how isolated councillors' staffers are. While some staffers work from city hall, many work from ward offices or elsewhere in the community.

There is no official way for councillors' assistants to interact with each other, either through a formal union or any sort of association that meets regularly.

It was known Rick had young, pretty girls revolving through his door. No one decided to look into this. That's what shocks me.- Victoria Laaber, former Chiarelli employee

And yet, it was no secret that Chiarelli's office saw an unusually high turnover rate of staffers, most of them women in their 20s.

"I don't fully believe that no one knew," said Victoria Laaber, who worked for Chiarelli for four years. During that time, Laaber said he drove her to a strip club in Gatineau to spy on another councillor, and asked her to wear revealing clothing with no bra to certain work events. 

"I'm not here to assign blame … but this was a known rumour in the sense that it was known Rick had young, pretty girls revolving through his door. No one decided to look into this. That's what shocks me," Laaber said.

When CBC first revealed the allegations against Chiarelli, Watson said that the city couldn't investigate "rumour and innuendo."

Now, the mayor says he thinks that someone should "have the ability to raise a red flag if there's too much of a turnover" in a councillor's office.

'Abuse of power'

Many also question why it took so long for complainants to come forward.

But research shows that where there's a power imbalance, especially between a junior woman and a senior man, the women often keep silent.

"People will not come out easily and say because they know the repercussions could be huge and could implicate their long-term careers, their lives, their futures," said Ivana Hideg, an associate professor and Canada research chair in organizational leadership at Wilfrid Laurier University. 

While councillors' assistants are technically city employees, they're not part of any union or association. They're hired — and fired — at the sole discretion of the councillor, and paid from the councillor's office budget. No one outside that office is really watching what's going on.

"There was an abuse of power because there was no oversight or accountability," Hideg said, based on her knowledge of the story from CBC's coverage. 

In theory, assistants could file formal complaints with the city's human resources department if they feel they're being harassed, but the former Chiarelli staffers who spoke to CBC said they feared losing their jobs.

With no family and few friends in the city, Laaber, then 21, was afraid of being sacked — a threat Chiarelli made often, according to Laaber, Lees and other former employees. 

"If I lost my job, I would've been screwed," Laaber said. "I wouldn't have been able to pay rent, I wouldn't have been able to deal with my day-to-day life."

Calls for training, HR rep

While city hall waits for the outcome of the integrity commissioner's investigation, the mayor has asked the clerk for a review of hiring practices and the work environment in councillors' offices. Everything from mandatory training for councillors to orientation sessions for new staffers is on the table.

"Not to be disrespectful … but many of my colleagues have never been in a position where they've overseen or supervised any staff," Watson said. "Any extra training we can give ourselves is beneficial."

Some sort of orientation for new staffers is also being considered. After all, working for politicians is unlike most jobs: you might be asked to attend evening events once a week or more, visit constituents in their neighbourhood, even drive your boss around town. The hours can be long or unusual. 

"One of the things that the clerk is going to look at is how do we do a better job of making sure people understand up front what the parameters of the job entail, what is appropriate and what is not appropriate," Watson said.

And when something doesn't seem right, staffers have to know there's someone they can go to to discuss the problem without fear of losing their jobs.

"There needs to be an HR person who is removed from councillors," Laaber said. 

'I'm so angry'

Looking back, Lees said she didn't speak up for a number of reasons.

"I didn't know who to complain to," she said.

I thought I was an isolated incident.- Brittany Lees, former Chiarelli staffer

And anyway, the behaviour in the office seemed normalized. Chiarelli had told her about how staffers had to take turns conducting the bizarre recruitment schemes, and Lees assumed others had done it, too — but she never talked to them about it at the time.

"I felt like I was just doing my job wrong," Lees said.  "I thought I was an isolated incident."

Like Laaber, Lees is now angry that Chiarelli's alleged behaviour was more widespread than she believed, and she's angry at his suggestion that the allegations are part of some sort of political scheme against him.

"It's just ridiculous," said Lees, who came forward after reading that Chiarelli denied the accusations of 12 other women. "Most of us have never met each other."

Today's council meeting begins at 10 a.m.

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