In our Saturday editorial The Day gave Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, the benefit of the doubt about the statement he made to a 17-year-old girl when testifying Feb. 20 to the Appropriations Committee. "If you're bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here."
We recognized the comment, taken alone, sounded like an inappropriate sexual insinuation. But taken in the context of the hearing - the teen had just testified how a science education program had helped her get over her bashfulness and fear of snakes - the representative's contention that he meant nothing sexual appeared credible.
Given the lawmaker's claim that any offense was unintentional, and his apology to the teen if she was offended, Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey's decision to strip Rep. Hewett of his deputy speakership, at a loss of $6,446 in salary, seemed a bit harsh.
But we were not in on the dirty little secret. The real context for the "snake" comment and the strong reaction among colleagues was a history of alleged inappropriate behavior by Rep. Hewett, whispered about in the halls of the Capitol but kept under wraps, until the fateful utterance. Knowing how such scandals often play out, we had cautioned in the same editorial, "If there is evidence of Rep. Hewett having acted inappropriately in the past, it will surface."
Has it ever.
First came some outrageous statements by Rep. Hewett, far more alarming than the comment that touched off this controversy. In an apparent explanation of the lengths to which he will go to avoid sexual harassment, he told the Hartford Courant about his intern policy or, more precisely, his female intern policy.
"(I) purposely will not have female interns. My intern now is male. I want to keep it like that. I've had female interns in the past that sit in my office all day. I thought it was totally weird and I didn't want another," Hewett told a Courant reporter.
Then it got worse. For years he had no intern at all, he explained, for fear the intern program might assign a young woman to his office.
"I don't know what they're going to give me. They may give me a female, but I don't want a female intern. That may sound sexist, but I really don't. That way that keeps me good and that keeps everybody else good."
Where to begin? It is disturbing that Rep. Hewett felt he could not work with a young woman without the issue of sexual harassment arising. It is troubling that he thought it OK to discriminate against women in selecting interns. And just how many decades do we have to go back to find a time when such thinking was used as an excuse to keep men and women from working in close proximity and, in the process, women from places of influence?
As disturbing as Rep. Hewett's comments were, the state representative formerly in charge of the intern program contends that the comments presented a positive spin on the situation! Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, maintains the program kept female interns from Rep. Hewett not at his request, but to protect them. "At least a handful" of interns had complained of Rep. Hewett's sexually tinged comments making them uncomfortable.
"We know he has a history of bad behavior, and we made a choice not to expose young women to that behavior," said Rep. Flexer.
We tried to get Rep. Hewett's take on this, but he is not returning our calls.
This situation has grown far beyond one off-hand comment at a hearing. We join New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, a Democrat, in calling for an investigation. The bipartisan Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee should be given the job.
Who was made aware of Rep. Hewett's alleged misconduct with interns and when? Was it investigated? What actions were taken as a result? Why did authorities file no formal harassment complaint against Rep. Hewett? Are procedures for handling such situations adequate? Was there other harassing behavior? Was this a cover-up?
Only with all the facts known can the public discern the true extent of Rep. Hewett's alleged misappropriate behavior, assess the appropriate consequences for that behavior, and be assured policies are in place to prevent any such unchecked improper conduct going forward.