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State employee says he was fired for questioning $10K COVID fine

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A state Department of Health employee contends he was fired because he questioned the department’s authority to levy a $10,000 fine against a Bridgeport bar that had allegedly flouted state rules about crowd size during the COVID-19 crisis.

Until recently, Av Harris was spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Public Health. He was fired on New Year’s Eve, “less than four months from his 10-year anniversary date,” Irene Bassock, his attorney, said in a letter to DPH counsel Anthony Casagrande.

“The facts demonstrate that his abrupt termination is illegal retaliation for speaking up about potentially unlawful activity,” Bassock said in a statement to Hearst Connecticut Media. “Instead of terminating him, Mr. Harris should be commended for how ethically he performed his job. We hope that the administration agrees and demonstrates that it supports whistleblowers by returning Mr. Harris to work.”

A request for comment sent to Gov. Ned Lamont’s office was not immediately returned.


Bassock contends that Harris was told the state intended to levy a $10,000 fine against Mangoz, a Bridgeport sports bar after an allegedly illegal party on Dec. 20 resulted in two homicides.

The Department of Public Health had determined that a gathering of more than 25 people had been held inside the bar that night, according to a statement from the governor’s office. The bar was also open past the state’s 10 p.m. curfew, the statement from the governor’s office said.

Bassock said Harris was asked “to reach out to the city government and get buy-in from the Police Department to have the officers give statements for this state enforcement action.”

Though he was told an executive order signed by Lamont granted the department authority to levy the fine, Bassock said Harris was unsure.

“Aside from concerns about interfering with the pending criminal investigation and the accuracy of the legal entity receiving the fine, Mr. Harris had significant concerns about DPH’s legal authority to issue the fine,” Bassock wrote to Casagrande.

Shortly after he raised concerns with department lawyers, Harris was informed that he would be fired. According to Bassock, that violated state law designed to protect employees “who take affirmative steps in good faith to prevent or stop unlawful activities.”

Also in December, the state announced that it had contracted with an outside firm, McDowell Communications, to handle all COVID-19-related communications.

The three-month contract pays McDowell $250,000. It had been initially reported that Harris would remain in his position.

Mangoz’s landlord, Robert Pierce, said he was appealing the $10,000 fine.

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