Councillor asked job applicant about going braless, woman alleges

A woman has filed a formal complaint with Ottawa's integrity commissioner alleging a city councillor asked her inappropriate questions of a sexual nature during a job interview, including whether she was comfortable not wearing a bra to work events.

Rick Chiarelli says allegations are 'spurious'

Ottawa Coun. Rick Chiarelli, pictured here in August 2017, has been accused of posing inappropriate questions during a job interview to a woman seeking employment at city hall. (CBC)

A woman has filed a formal complaint with Ottawa's integrity commissioner alleging a city councillor asked her inappropriate questions of a sexual nature during a job interview, including whether she was comfortable not wearing a bra to work events.

The woman told CBC that during the interview at a Starbucks one Sunday afternoon in late June, Coun. Rick Chiarelli asked her if she would be open to wearing costumes to events such as Ottawa Comiccon, an annual comic book convention.

I just couldn't believe this was happening. I just kept thinking, it's 2019, how is this possible?- Complainant

The woman alleged Chiarelli then showed her a photo on his cellphone of a former employee dressed up in a revealing costume that she had worn to the popular event.

She said the councillor for College ward then asked her, "What would you not wear?" When she asked what he meant by that, she said Chiarelli responded: "Well, would you go braless?"

The woman said she was stunned by the request and told Chiarelli she was not comfortable with the suggestion.

Councillor showed her photo

The woman said the councillor then showed her a different cellphone picture of a woman in a low-cut T-shirt with a Canada logo on it. The photo was taken from the side, "and you could see [the woman's] torso and you could clearly see that she was not wearing a bra," the woman told CBC.

CBC has agreed not to name the complainant because of her concern that she would have trouble finding employment in the future if she's identified publicly. She was also concerned she'd face a backlash, especially on social media.

CBC has not revealed the woman's name to Chiarelli, but has provided the councillor with identifying details including the date, place and general time of the interview, as well as the details of her allegations.

CBC has spoken with six other employees and former employees who worked in Chiarelli's office, five of whom say they've heard the councillor make inappropriate comments in the workplace. Two told CBC Chiarelli also mentioned not wearing a bra to them.

This woman, who CBC has agreed not to name, alleges Chiarelli asked her inappropriate questions during a job interview at a Starbucks in late June. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Chiarelli declines comment

After several days of trying to contact Chiarelli for comment on the allegations, CBC received a letter last Friday from his lawyer, Bruce Sevigny.

The letter did not address any specific claims, but instead referred to "spurious allegations." Sevigny wrote that Chiarelli has "consistently conducted himself in accordance with the highest moral and ethical standards, and in full compliance with the City of Ottawa's Code of Conduct and Violence and Harassment in the Workplace Policy, and with the Ontario Human Rights Code."

The letter also alluded to "specific information" that the councillor had recently received that suggests "highly improper motivations and tactics in relation to the spurious allegations."

CBC responded to Sevigny by email late Friday afternoon, further detailing the allegations against Chiarelli and asking for any information that may be pertinent to the story.

2nd letter from lawyer

Late Monday afternoon, Chiarelli's lawyer sent a second letter stating that he had advised Chiarelli to "completely refrain from responding to the allegations."

Through his lawyer, Chiarelli objected to being accused of misbehaviour by an unidentified person.

If someone is going to make this type of allegation against a respected family man, community builder, and three-decade member of City Council, they should at least be prepared to provide full and fair disclosure, and to stand behind the allegation publicly.- Bruce Sevigny, lawyer for Coun. Rick Chiarelli

"If someone is going to make this type of allegation against a respected family man, community builder, and three-decade member of City Council, they should at least be prepared to provide full and fair disclosure, and to stand behind the allegation publicly," the letter states.

Chiarelli had not been informed of a formal complaint made against him to the integrity commissioner, according to the letter.

"It would be completely inappropriate for Councillor Chiarelli to attempt to respond to any allegations outside the mandated formal complaint process, which is most certainly subject to strict confidentiality requirements," the councillor's lawyer wrote.

The letter also states that prior to being contacted by CBC, Chiarelli had no knowledge of the specific allegations. 

The letter doesn't elaborate on the "improper motivations" alluded to in the first letter.

Coun. Rick Chiarelli, left, responded to the allegations through his lawyer, who wrote that the councillor 'has always conducted himself according to the highest moral and ethical standards.' (CBC News)

Councillor 'a nice person'

CBC spoke separately with five women who have worked in Chiarelli's office at some point in the last 18 months, and a sixth woman who worked for Chiarelli earlier and has returned to work for the councillor in recent weeks.

They all report having different experiences.

The woman who currently works for Chiarelli told CBC the councillor is "a nice person," and said she never witnessed any inappropriate behaviour. In fact, the complainant reached out to the woman to ask if she had ever experienced anything that had made her uncomfortable while working in Chiarelli's office. The woman said she had not, and said she told the complainant that working in the councillor's office "is a great experience." 

Another woman contacted by CBC said she chose to wear costumes to family-friendly events in the ward. For example, she said, she dressed as a Harry Potter character on one occasion and a Disney character on another.

'Inappropriate comments'

Five women said they heard Chiarelli make inappropriate comments in the office, including a joke he repeatedly told about needing to sanitize one of the office desks because a former employee had had sex on it with another councillor.

Two of them said the councillor also mentioned going braless to them. One of the women said that during her interview last year, the councillor described revealing outfits other employees had worn and asked her what she thought about wearing shirts that showed the side of a woman's breasts. The woman said she told the councillor she wouldn't need to be told what to wear. She got the job.

Chiarelli brought up the topic with another employee in a text message exchange earlier this year after the woman asked his advice about the sort of dress she should wear to an awards ceremony.

Nothing "ho-ish," the councillor texted back, "but depending on the dress no bra required."

The letter from Chiarelli's lawyer did not address these allegations.

'No bra required': Chiarelli's wardrobe advice to an employee. CBC has blacked out the councillor's cellphone number but has verified the message came from his number. (Provided)

Complainant in 'state of denial'

The complainant said she began to look for work in the spring because her 90-day contract with the federal government was ending in early summer.

A friend who had once worked for a former Ottawa city councillor forwarded her resumé to someone who currently works on councillors' row at City Hall. From there, the woman's resumé found its way to a central pool of CVs councillors can draw from when they're looking for new employees.

The complainant said she never applied directly to work in Chiarelli's office and doesn't know anyone who has worked for him. She received an email from Chiarelli in June asking if she was still looking for a job, and they arranged to meet at a Starbucks in Bells Corners in the early afternoon on June 23.

The complainant said the interview, which took more than two hours, began normally enough, with Chiarelli describing the job as including communications, website and social media updates, as well as attending evening events once or twice a week.

Strange turn

The interview then took an unusual turn, according to the woman.

The 55-year-old councillor, who has been in politics since he was a teenager, kept emphasizing that his staff go to "different types of events," she said. When she asked what he meant, the complainant said Chiarelli told her his employees liked to engage in "a lot of cosplay," or adult dress-up.

That's when Chiarelli launched into a detailed discussion of what at least one former employee used to wear to some events and showed the complainant pictures on his phone, she said.

It was during this phase of their discussion that the woman said Chiarelli asked her if she was willing to go without a bra.

She alleged that at one point during the interview, Chiarelli looked up and down her bare arms and legs — she was wearing a summer dress — and asked what body parts she would not be willing to show.

"I was in a state of denial," the complainant told CBC. "I just couldn't believe this was happening. I just kept thinking, it's 2019, how is this possible?"

Chiarelli's constituency office at Ben Franklin Place in Ottawa. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Bizarre recruitment scheme

The complainant said Chiarelli also described a bizarre-sounding strategy for signing up volunteers, which involved women in his office going to bars to flirt and drink with men. The female staffers were then supposed to pressure the men into volunteering at Chiarelli's office.

The woman said Chiarelli told her that when the men were later contacted by the women they'd met and asked to volunteer, they "would not be able to say no because they will never admit that they were drunk and hitting on her."

Another one of the women contacted by CBC echoed that story, saying the councillor wanted her to recruit "secret volunteers by going into bars, getting guys drunk, let them think I'd sleep with them, and then pressure them into volunteering."

The woman said she never did that.

The complainant said Chiarelli never explicitly told her that in order to get the job she would have to wear costumes, go braless or go to bars to flirt with men. But she said it was never clear to her whether she'd be pressured to do any of those things once she got the job.

She said Chiarelli called her on July 6 to offer her the job, and told her she could wear whatever she wanted. She declined the position.

Job a stepping stone

Ottawa city councillors are each assigned an annual office budget of more than $250,000, much of which is used to pay their staff.

While their salaries are paid with public money, and they're technically city employees, the staffers are hired on contracts that last, at most, until the end of each term of council. The positions are not unionized, so the workers can be hired and fired more easily than can regular city staff.

But a job in a councillor's office can also lead to other opportunities, and for that reason, they're often seen as desirable positions. It's not unusual for a councillor's assistant to transition to a full-time city staff job, with all the benefits and security that come with it.

Some former councillors' assistants have successfully entered politics, and working in a councillor's office is seen as a great way to make connections in the community. In other words, it's a job that can open doors.

Chiarelli offered the woman a job in his office on July 6, but she declined the offer. (Laura Osman/ CBC)

'I just want to do the right thing'

The complainant said she was livid after the interview and immediately called her mother, her roommate and, later, the friend who had forwarded her resumé. She also told her supervisor at the federal government.

CBC has spoken independently with the roommate and the friend, both of whom corroborated the complainant's version of events.

The woman contacted CBC soon after the interview at the urging of her supervisor, with whom CBC also spoke. CBC first met with the complainant on June 28.

She said she was motivated to come forward with her story because she doesn't want other women to be asked the same sorts of questions she was asked.

"I just want to do the right thing," she told CBC.

Reached out to employee

The complainant said she also tried to reach out to former Chiarelli employees to find out about their experiences. The woman found someone on Reddit who said she had worked for the councillor for a short while but quit. That conversation was anonymous, and the complainant erased it.

Through her city hall contact, the woman was also put in touch with someone who worked for Chiarelli until 2018. That woman, who has returned to work for Chiarelli in the past few weeks, told CBC she told the complainant that she liked working for the councillor, never experienced anything amiss in his office and was never made to feel uncomfortable there.

The woman said she told the complainant that if Chiarelli had ever said or done anything to make her uncomfortable, she should "tell him directly, and he will apologize, and he won't do it again."

The initial job interview took place at this Starbucks in Bells Corners in June. (Jean Deslisle/CBC)

Complaint to integrity commissioner

The woman went in person to the mayor's reception area to complain directly to Mayor Jim Watson two days after the interview —  the earliest she said she could get to City Hall because of her work schedule. There, she was told she should file a complaint with the integrity commissioner, who's responsible for making sure members of council adhere to the city's code of conduct.

On July 2, she emailed a complaint to the city's integrity commissioner, Robert Marleau. CBC has seen a copy of the email.

Last Friday, she signed an affidavit swearing to the veracity of her version of events — a necessary step to formalize a complaint.

10 days to respond

Marleau said as a rule, he can neither confirm nor deny that a complaint has been filed, nor confirm whether an investigation is underway.

According to the city's website, the integrity commissioner first screens submissions to ensure they're not frivolous. He then provides details of the complaint to the councillor in question, who has 10 days to respond. 

Based on the councillor's response, the integrity commissioner then decides whether to continue to move forward with a formal investigation, which can include hiring an outside investigator.

He generally keeps the identity of a complainant confidential during any investigation but provides enough information about a specific incident that a councillor can usually surmise the identity of the complainant.

If a councillor is found to have contravened the code of conduct, the integrity commissioner can recommend that he or she loses up to 90 days' pay or other measures. Council has the final say on imposing any sanctions.


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.