A parks supervisor was put on paid administrative leave by the town yesterday, the same day that one of his employees accused him of harassing him about his German heritage and ordering a swastika painted on his desk.
In the two-page affidavit filed with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, longtime town employee Otto Lauersdorf said that he has been the victim of a hostile work environment for the past 16 months.
The complaint said that Craig Whitcomb, Lauersdorf’s supervisor for the past six years, ordered fellow parks worker, Hank Walsh, to paint a swastika on a wooden board atop Lauersdorf’s desk.
Gary Phelan, a partner in the Stamford law firm Outten & Golden, said his client was traumatized by the image.
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Lauersdorf discovered the symbol on or about March 21, the complaint said, describing the incident as being consistent with a pattern of harassment perpetrated by Whitcomb against the German-born employee.
Lauersdorf’s father was killed by a Nazi during World War II, a fact known by Whitcomb, the complaint said.
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First Selectman Jim Lash said he made the decision to place Whitcomb on paid administrative leave.
“The facts found so far indicated that was the appropriate next step,” said Lash, who would not discuss those specific findings or confirm whether Whitcomb ordered the swastika painted as alleged.
Shown photographs of the swastika, Lash said it was the first time he was seeing the images.
“The alleged activities are completely outside of acceptable behavior in the town,” Lash said. “If this is what was drawn, no one could possibly imagine that the town condones this kind of activity.”
Phelan said his client was driven to file the complaint against the town yesterday after what he described as its “cavalier” response to the initial union grievance.
“Mr. Lauersdorf believed that the town would find this kind of behavior outrageous and would take action to address it,” he said.
But Phelan said his client was “stunned” when Lash characterized the incident as inappropriate workplace banter and “a personnel matter of the usual sort” in a newspaper interview last Friday before a town investigation of the incident had concluded.
“The swastika is a symbol of hatred and violence,” Phelan said. “To characterize it as merely banter is outrageous.”
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Lauersdorf’s complaint went on to accuse Whitcomb of making inappropriate comments about Nazis and the Holocaust on the job.
“For example, a few months ago he said to me, ‘If I ever need an oven built, I will know where to go,’ ” the complaint said, quoting Whitcomb.
Addressing why his client only recently reported the harassment to his union, Phelan said Lauersdorf was concerned about retaliation from his boss.
“He feared that if he disclosed this, it would only get worse,” Phelan said.
Last week, Lauersdorf said he had tried to ignore the alleged treatment, but ultimately couldn’t.
Despite accusing Whitcomb of creating a hostile work environment, the complaint names the town, not Lauersdorf’s supervisor, as a defendant. Phelan said state and federal employment discrimination statutes do not have a provision for bringing complaints against individuals, which would have to be done as a legal action.
Lauersdorf’s complaint was received yesterday by the CHRO’s southwest regional office in Bridgeport, according to officials there, who said the town would have 30 days to respond to the allegations. The complaint process includes a rebuttal period for Lauersdorf and his lawyer to follow up their initial claims. At that time, Phelan said, the photos of the swastika could be submitted as evidence. The agency will ultimately decide whether to launch an investigation of the alleged incident or dismiss the complaint after a 90-day waiting period.
Employment-related complaints filed with the CHRO are automatically forwarded to the EEOC, according to Phelan.
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Phelan said his client will decide next week whether to file a criminal complaint with police. Although his client is not Jewish, Phelan said the painting of the swastika was nevertheless intimidating and upsetting to his German-born client.
“We do still consider it to be a hate crime,” Phelan said.