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Monroe County legislator alleges Rep. Joe Morelle tried to get her fired

Jul 27, 2020

Monroe County Legislator Sabrina LaMar has accused Rep. Joe Morelle of trying to have her fired from her job at RIT.
Credit Gino Fanelli / CITY Newspaper

A Monroe County legislator is calling for the resignation of Congressman Joe Morelle, alleging that he tried to get her fired from her job.

Legislator Sabrina LaMar, a Democrat who represents the city’s 19th Ward, lodged a complaint against Morelle with the House of Representatives’ Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday. In it, she alleged that Morelle threatened to pull federal funds from the Rochester Institute of Technology if LaMar was not fired.

LaMar ultimately kept her job at RIT and a spokesperson for the school said she had no knowledge of RIT losing funding in connection with the matter.

“Congressman Joe Morelle utilized his position in office to attempt to have me removed from my position,” LaMar said at a news conference announcing her complaint. “I was reprimanded because of false accusations and I know, if he would do this to me, he would do this to anybody.”

The Morelle for Congress campaign confirmed Monday that one of its representatives did contact RIT on April 29 to complain about LaMar, though it denied in a statement there there was any attempt to have LaMar’s employment terminated or a threat to pull funds from the school.

“The Morelle campaign inquired about RIT personnel appearing in political campaign advertising in their professional capacity as an RIT employee,” a statement from the Morelle campaign read. “At no time was the employee’s employment or funding for the institution raised.”

A few hours after LaMar announced her complaint, a visibly emotional Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren called a news conference to support LaMar. Speaking to reporters in the City Hall atrium while choking back tears, Warren said Morelle personally told her he phoned officials at RIT to press for LaMar's firing.

"Mr. Morelle, one of the most powerful men in our community, threatened her and her ability to provide for her family," Warren said.

"The fact is, Congressman Morelle told me this personally, and he told others personally that he made that call," Warren went on.

Warren suggested Morelle's alleged call to RIT was retribution for LaMar having referred to Morelle's son, Joe Morelle Jr., also a Monroe County Legislator, as a racist. It was unclear in what context or when that accusation occured. 

Warren, who declined to take questions after her statement, said she was standing up with LaMar as a fellow Black woman.

"Many people don't realize what us, as black women, go through," she said. "We've seen and experienced racism at its toughest, and rarest, form."

The foundation for the Morelle campaign’s complaint was an April 16 appearance LaMar made on a video talk show hosted on the Facebook page for the campaign of Robin Wilt, a Brighton Town Board member who at the time was challenging Morelle in a Democratic primary.

LaMar, a program coordinator for RIT’s Community Engagement to Reduce Victimization (CERV) initiative, was joined by Police Accountability Board member Miquel Powell to discuss violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other issues. She claims that Morelle complained to her higher-ups that she mixed her role at RIT with her role as a legislator.

Nowhere during the talk show did LaMar appear to reference Morelle Jr.

Credit Provided

In her complaint to David Skaggs, Chairman of the Office of Congressional Ethics, LaMar alleged that Morelle violated Section 14-1 of the Congressional Code of Conduct. That section forbids influencing employment decisions of private institutions by threatening to withhold an official act.

While CERV is funded through the New York State Health Foundation, its parent department, the Center for Public Safety Initiatives, does receive grants from the federal Department of Justice.

“A call from a congressman in this manner is a threat to the private entity,” LaMar said. “This conduct is not befitting of a congressman.”

Ellen Rosen, a spokesperson for RIT, said the phone call was a personnel matter and that she could not comment on it specifically. She noted that LaMar was not fired and that she had no knowledge of whether the school lost funding, however.

RIT policy allows for staff to engage in politics, as long as they do not do so in their capacity as a school employee.

At the news conference, LaMar was joined by Stanley Martin of Free the People Roc, an community advocacy organization that has been at the forefront of the local Black Lives Matter movement.

Martin, who Federal Elections Commission financial disclosure filings show was paid for managing Wilt's campaign though at least March of his year, cast LaMar’s appearance on Wilt’s campaign show as apolitical.

“She spoke about her role at RIT, the subject of the conversation had to do with curbing gun violence and violence during COVID-19,” Martin said. “That’s exactly what her job is supposed to be focused on at RIT.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer.