Rep. Morelle releases screenshots of text messages in connection to ethics complaint filed Monday

Local Politics

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — In response to an ethics complaint filed against him Monday, Rep. Joe Morelle (D-25) has released a statement and screenshots of text messages in connection to the alleged incidents that preceded the filing.

The ethics complaint was filed by Monroe County Legislator Sabrina LaMar (D-27) Monday. She stated that Rep. Morelle’s office put pressure on her employer, the Rochester Institute of Technology, to terminate her employment after appearing in a video with his congressional challenger Robin Wilt.

The Congressman’s campaign issued a statement Monday saying in part, “At no time was the employee’s employment or funding for the institution raised.”

MORE | Mayor Warren tearful in support of Monroe County legislator’s ethics complaint against Rep. Morelle

“In April, I was asked by his opponent to come on her show and talk about my work at RIT. After this video, I received numerous phone calls inquiring why would I be supporting his opponent when I am a Democratic County Legislator,” LaMar said Monday. “My appearance on her show had nothing to do with politics. It was to talk about my work as the CERV project coordinator and the limitations that COVID-19 had presented on curbing gun violence on our community.”

In a statement Tuesday, Morelle said:

“In April, I inquired about Ms. LaMar appearing in political campaign advertising while representing her professional capacity as an RIT employee. The attached photos document the full extent of the outreach and communication with the Government Relations contact at RIT. As the campaign stated yesterday, this clearly demonstrates that at no point was there any attempt to threaten Ms. LaMar’s employment nor discuss funding for the institution.”

Screenshots of text messages

According to the screenshots, the text message conversation between Rep. Morelle and RIT Director of Government and Community Affairs Deborah Stendardi was as follows:

Rep. Morelle (April 28 at 12:33 p.m.): Debbie, I try not to overreact to annoyances, but wanted to share the link below with you. Sabrina LaMar did a recent video for Robin Wilt’s congressional campaign. When she was questioned about it, she said it was not about her role as a County Legislator, but she needed to do these appearances as part of her work at RIT. Given that the event was a campaign event and not a government event, I doubt that’s true. Can you take a look at this and give me your thoughts on it? Thanks! Hope you’re staying safe! [Link attached to Robin Wilt’s congressional campaign video with Sabrina LaMar].

Stendardi (April 28 at 12:35 p.m.): Joe. I will absolutely look into this. First I’ve heard of it. I will get back to you.

Stendardi (April 29 at 11:07 a.m.): Just sent a note to the dean and her Dept head asking that they address this with her and confirm that she understands this is counter to RIT policy. Will get back to you when I hear back from them. BY THE WAY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Stendardi (April 29 at 2:34 p.m.): Joe. I heard back from our folks. They will speak with her about this. We felt if we asked her to have it taken down it would escalate. The Dept head who told her it was ok to do so was apologetic and he did say it was not required of her work. I told him there are any questions along these lines in the future he should check with me.

Rep. Morelle (April 29 at 4:10 p.m.): Sounds like a good resolution. Thank you for everything!

LaMar released a statement Tuesday evening in response to Rep. Morelle’s release of the text message screenshots:

“Today, Congressman Joe Morelle admitted that he personally contacted my employer, RIT, to silence me. Yesterday, Morelle said his “campaign” contacted RIT. Now, the truth has come out. 

The very act of a sitting Congressman personally contacting a senior official at the University to demand they act against me as an employee is an ethics violation that demands his resignation. 

The truth is I was reprimanded by my employer after Congressman Morelle demanded it. The vice president of governmental relations, Ms. Stendardi, contacted the Dean of my college and the department head, my direct supervisor, asking for them to terminate me. There is a direct line from the Congressman’s demand to my resulting punishment and silencing. 

Again, Congressman Morelle admitted today that he personally took direct action to silence me as a black woman for doing my job – simply appearing in a Facebook video to discuss my work to reduce gun violence. A video, by all media accounts, is not political in nature at all. 

It’s clear, now that he has admitted the truth, Congressman Morelle must resign. Further, it is clear that by sharing messages from an RIT vice president with the media he has now created an obligation for RIT. RIT must share all of the communications from Ms. Stendardi to our University colleagues regarding her involvement in silencing me and preventing me from doing my job to protect this community from gun violence. Our community needs to know the full truth of the Congressman and Ms. Stendardi’s actions.

Lastly, I call upon others I know have suffered from Congressman Morelle’s abuse of his power and privilege to step forward so we can finally end this unacceptable silencing of Black and Brown voices that dare disagree with him.”

At a brief press availability Monday afternoon, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren was emotional in showing her support for LaMay’s claims, saying in part:

“The people of my community have suffered for too long, and I am tired. I am tired of people like Joe Morelle abusing their position to silence women, to silence a black woman they disagree with. I won’t allow this to occur without speaking up. Ms. LaMar, and black and brown women have a right to speak truth to power without being silenced. To say what needs to be said, without being threatened by men who can’t accept that our voices matter.”

A spokesperson from RIT released the following statement Monday evening:

“While RIT does not comment on personnel matters, we want to point out that the university has a clear and widely disseminated policy regarding permitted political and legislative activities for all employees.”

You can read the full policy on their website.

Monroe County Legislator Sabrina LaMar press conference:

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren press conference:

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.

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