Road agent's alleged behavior at heart of harassment suit against Barnstead

BARNSTEAD — After a three-year investigation, the N.H. Commission on Human Rights has determined a there is probable cause for a former highway department foreman to sue the town and its elected road agent for sexual harassment and retaliation.
Richard Niolet, 56, formerly of Center Barnstead but now of Concord, claims Road Agent Christopher Carazzo discriminated against him racially and sexually beginning in 2008 and 2009. He also claims Carazzo, first elected in 2008, retaliated against him after he filed a formal complaint with the selectmen in July of 2009, eventually eliminating the foreman position and causing him to quit his job on May 27, 2010.
Niolet filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission on July 10, 2010. The commission determined the statute of limitations had expired regarding the claim of racial discrimination but continued the investigation into the complaints about sexual harassment and retaliation.
The first official communication was on July 16, 2009, when Niolet wrote a letter to the Selectboard detailing his issues with Carazzo.
He wrote that Carazzo was creating a "hostile work environment" and while he understood Carazzo was elected to bring some order and discipline to the highway department, he didn't think there was a "need for a maximum security prison atmosphere."
He said he feared retaliation if he complained to the board and had consulted with the NAACP and an lawyer. He also wrote he would go "VERY public" if selectmen didn't act or if there was retaliation.
Niolet, who is white and has a racially-mixed child and grandchildren, told selectmen he had told Carazzo to stop making racial comments because he was offended and detailed one particular comment made regarding watermelon. He said Carazzo apologized to him immediately and spoke to a contractor who had also made some disparaging racial comments, Niolet said the contractor also apologized to him but told him someone should have forewarned him about the composition of Niolet's family.
Nioet said he felt both apologies were "insincere" but said he never heard another racial slur. The commission determined the statute of limitations on racial discrimination had passed and there was no probable cause to continue that portion of the investigation.
Niolet said the sexual discrimination began in the form of Carazzo calling him and other members of the department "fag," "bitch," "dumb ass" and other names. He also said Carazzo told him to tell his crews to "take their skirts off" in order to complete a certain job.
According to the paperwork obtained from the commission, on July 27, 2009 the Board of Selectmen, then headed by David Kerr, began an investigation and interviewed every member of the highway department in private. They said one employee remembered hearing Carazzo make a racially-tinged watermelon comment as Niolet had written in his letter.
The same employee told selectmen he often participated in "banter" with Carazzo but he had never heard Niolet participate. The problems between Niolet and Carazzo, he said, began when Niolet told Carazzo he was creating a hostile work environment. He also said Carazzo told him privately that Niolet wouldn't be around much longer.
The three remaining employees had varying tales to tell including one who said he heard "Sally" and "skirts" comments coming from Carazzo. He also told the board that Carazzo was fair and he interpreted the comments as "all in fun." He said he didn't hear any racial comments from Carazzo.
A different employee said he hadn't heard anything and thought Niolet was power-hungry. Another said Niolet was ambitious and wanted to be the road agent. He said he had never heard any sexual or racial comments. A fifth employee said he never heard anything.
Three of the five said Carazzo demanded hard work from the department's employees and one said Carazzo was not known to compliment them. Another said Carazzo "needs management classes" and shouldn't run his department "like a concentration camp" but that he didn't think Carazzo should be fired.
Niolet wrote a second letter dated July 16, 2009 — one week after his first letter to selectmen — telling the board Carazzo was aware of the complaint and saying the harassment had escalated and two more employees were now being targeted.  He said when he and another employee mentioned eating lunch while checking a clogged culvert, Carazzo said the two could go to a "real private spot ... where no one would hear Rich's screams."
On July 29, 2009 selectmen sent Carazzo a letter explaining the complaint and requesting him to meet with the board in a non-public session on August 4, 2009. He was told he would be given every opportunity to respond. The meeting actually occurred August 11 according to the Human Rights Commission.
A second letter from selectmen addressing Niolet's second complaint told Carazzo not to retaliate against any of his employees or attempt to intimidate them. The letter said that, despite his being elected, state laws gave the board the authority to remove him.
The commission's interviews said at the August 11 non-public meeting, Carazzo told selectmen the alleged watermelon comment was not true and he had spoken to the contractor about making racial slurs.
He denied telling his team to take off their skirts and said he didn't make the disparaging sexual comments.
"Carazzo ended his meeting with Selectmen by stating he couldn't believe the accusations against him and wasn't going to this it lying down," read the report.
When asked to clarify his statement, Carazzo said he had gotten a lawyer and he "wasn't going to let the crew walk all over him."
On August 22, 2009 selectmen sent Carazzo a finding that concluded most of the allegations against him had been substantiated by at least one or more of his employees. They told him to stop all forms of conversation in the entire department that could be considered inappropriate, to create a better working environment and to use all of the employees to the best of their abilities. They also said he and his employees should all take a harassment/discrimination class.
There was also some discussion at that meeting about Carazzo's authority to demote Niolet to laborer status. Selectmen said he had the authority but Niolet resigned before he could be demoted.
On May 25, 2010 the Human Rights Commission investigation reported Niolet contacted Selectman's Chair David Kerr by phone and told him the harassment had begun again.
Board members spoke with Carazzo who told them he had issued a disciplinary write-up for Niolet for performance and that he wasn't doing his job. He said he felt like he was "babysitting" Niolet.
Niolet quit two days later and filed the formal complaint in July of 2010.
The commission interviewed two of his former co-workers as part of their investigation as well interviewing Kerr and Carazzo.
The interviews indicate one of Niolet's former co-workers had heard the sexual harassment comments and was one of the people to whom Carazzo allegedly made a "Brokeback Mountain" reference. One said he never heard Carazzo make any of the alleged comments.
Unable to reach an agreement at the Human Rights Commission level, the case was removed from that jurisdiction at Carazzo's request and is now in the Belknap County Superior Court for possible trial.
Selectman David Kerr declined comment yesterday. Carazzo is represented by an attorney who also declined to comment. It is not known if Niolet has retained counsel however, the report issued by the commission indicated he acted as his own lawyer during its investigation.