Updated at 1:44 p.m.
In a bizarre moment during a virtual meeting of the Vermont Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday, a consultant scheduled to testify uttered a racial slur twice, apparently unaware his microphone was on.
Though the incident was not immediately addressed in committee, video of it later circulated among legislators and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, called it “abhorrent.”
In an email to VTDigger on Thursday morning, the consultant, Resource Systems Group senior director Steven Gayle, attributed the event to an unspecified mental health issue. Later that morning, Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn, whose agency had contracted with the White River Junction research and analytics firm, told VTDigger that Gayle had been terminated.
The incident occurred about an hour into a meeting of the Transportation Committee, shortly before the panel was scheduled to discuss an Agency of Transportation study on direct-to-consumer motor vehicle sales. The committee was on a 10-minute break when Gayle appeared onscreen and was greeted by the committee’s assistant.
About three minutes later, the video shows an apparently agitated Gayle whispering and wringing his hands. At one point, he seems to say “Don't believe this shit," and, “They’ll say anything to get elected.”
A minute after that, Gayle erupts again, appearing to say, “You know we arrested every N—,” stating the full racial slur.
After another minute, Gayle seems to repeat the epithet and the word “prison,” though it’s difficult to make out precisely what he is saying. Another person in the virtual meeting then coughs, prompting the video to shift away from Gayle.
Shortly thereafter, Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, the committee’s chair, reconvenes the meeting. It lasts another hour and a half but Gayle never testifies.
In his email to VTDigger, Gayle said his comments were the result of “an outburst while reading a news report, of course not realizing Zoom was on.” He said he was “in counseling” for the mental health issue.
According to a biography posted to the Resource Systems Group’s website, Gayle is an expert in metropolitan transportation planning who joined the firm in 2010. That biography was removed from the website Thursday morning.
Flynn, the transportation secretary, said he spoke with Resource Systems Group CEO Stephen Lawe on Thursday morning. According to Flynn, Lawe told him that Gayle’s language was unacceptable and that he would no longer be working for the company. The state plans to continue contracting with the Resource Systems Group, Flynn said.
“It’s inexcusable. We won’t tolerate it,” Flynn said of Gayle’s remarks. “From what Mr. Lawe told me … they’re taking the appropriate actions.”
On Thursday afternoon, after a version of this story was first published, Lawe apologized for Gayle's behavior in a written statement and said his company was putting in place "additional safeguards to assure that our current employees are aligned properly with our company values and uphold them."
“On behalf of the entire company, I apologize to anyone affected by these deplorable remarks," Lawe said in the statement. "The outburst by an employee of RSG is both regrettable and unforgivable. This kind of behavior is not at all tolerated and the employee was terminated immediately."
Balint, the Senate president pro tem, said Thursday that she planned to get to the bottom of the incident and had been on the phone all morning addressing it.
“It is absolutely unacceptable and makes us all feel sick to our stomach,” she said.
Balint said she was working with the Statehouse’s IT team to determine whether the video could be edited to remove the racist language. At the time this story was published, the video was no longer available on the Legislature's website. VTDigger captured the relevant portions, which can be viewed here.
“That's what I'm balancing this morning is, you know, making sure we still have avenues by which the public can testify,” Balint said, “and mitigating damage and trauma that can be perpetuated by, you know, the public, a person of color in Vermont, viewing this as an official video from the Vermont Legislature.”
She said the video would be taken down and edited because the language Gayle used qualified as “hate speech.” But an original copy would be saved for the public record, she said.
Reached by phone early Thursday, Mazza said he had not heard the statements Gayle had made and had not heard from other legislators about the incident. Mazza said he was “shocked” to learn of it and said he’d “have to get some facts” before commenting further.
Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington, the committee’s vice chair, said he also had not heard the comments at the time of the meeting but found out late Wednesday night as other legislators contacted him about it.
“It's definitely totally unacceptable and he shouldn't be allowed to ever testify,” Perchlik said. “I think it is a sign of how racism is prevailing in some of this horrible language of white supremacy.”
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